Welcome to my blog! You can see all of my latest posts below. If you’d like to start at the beginning, check out my Posts page. Most of my posts form part of a longer discourse, so they build on each other. If you have any comments, questions, or constructive criticisms, then comment away! Cheers, and thanks for reading. 🙂
My last post looked briefly at the problem of divine hiddenness. That problem, to me, is one of the two strongest reasons to disbelieve that God exists. The second of those two reasons is the problem of evil and suffering. It is the question, “If God exists, why is there so much wrong with the world? Why is there so much pain?”
One way to logically formulate the problem goes like this:
- If God exists, then he is all-good and all-powerful.
- If God is all-powerful, he creates whichever world he prefers.
- If God is all-good, then he prefers a world with less evil and suffering than our own.
- But the evil and suffering of our own world do exist.
- Therefore, God did not create a world with less evil and suffering than our own.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
Based on considerations such as the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the axiological argument, I accept the first premise. The fourth premise is true by definition. And the intuitive plausibility of the second and third premises is what gives the problem of evil its intellectual force. Pain and suffering are intrinsically less preferable than their absence, making worlds with less of it better in some respect than worlds with more of it. And it certainly seems like God should prefer better worlds, and be able to create them.
“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Then whence evil?” – David Hume
Nevertheless, I think there are consideration which should lead us to doubt these crucial two premises of the problem of evil. Contra Hume, many philosophers have answered Epicurus: God is able to prevent evil, and he does not will it to occur – but he can have good reasons to allow it in the world the he creates.
The Second Premise
The second premise is that if God is all-powerful, then he can and will create whatever world he wants. There is one important consideration that gives good reason to reject this premise: the possibility of free will.
If God chooses to give genuine free will to his creatures – and there is significant value in him doing so, since, I would argue, it is what makes real loving relationships with and between his creatures possible – then God actually cannot just create whatever world he most wants to exist. In creating human beings with free will, God allows us to be co-actualizers of his reality. He can only create a world in which we make certain free choices if those are the choices that we would freely make.
To put it another way, if God prefers that we choose A, but we instead choose B, then he can only create the reality where we choose A by removing our free will. By allowing us to make free choices, some possibilities are closed off to God. This says nothing to undermine his omnipotence, but it does overturn the intuitive justification for the second premise.
The Third Premise
The more powerful objection to the problem of evil, however, is to reject the third premise on the grounds that God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering to occur. Free will comes into play here in a significant way as well: it is often put forward that God allows evil because he wants to allow free, morally significant choices to occur, and sometimes such choices result in evil. And he wants free, morally significant choices to occur because they are a necessary condition of loving personal relationships with his creatures, and for his creatures to undergo the moral growth that is necessary for them to experience perfect happiness.
Sometimes philosophers discuss a difference between moral evil and natural evil, the former being the result of free choices by moral agents (such as one person murdering another), and the latter being suffering that does not result from any such choice (such as an animal dying in a forest fire caused by a lightning strike). It is harder to see how natural evil could be justified by the consideration of free will, in addition to moral evil, but in fact I think it can be done.
Natural evil happens because the laws of nature operate in a certain consistent way, and God does not constantly intervene in the natural order that he has created to prevent such evils from occurring. But the fact that he does not constantly intervene actually serves as one of the conditions which makes our free will significant. The existence of consistent natural world enables us to reasonably predict what the consequences of our free choices will be, and provides us with opportunities to choose good over evil that we would not otherwise have.
Moreover, I would argue there is a kind of beauty in the natural world that would be diminished if it were constantly disrupted by God to prevent every kind of pain and suffering. We also have to consider that not all pain and suffering is completely bad: it is an intrinsic part of diverse ecosystems, it can serve to prevent further harm, and it can actually draw people closer to God. From a Christian perspective, there are verses in the Bible indicating God’s approval of the natural world, complete with instances of apparent evil (such as predation).
So those are some reasons why God might permit evil to occur. Here is another article giving another set of goods which may require allowing evil in order to be realized. I think these are worth mentioning:
- As I have already said, a knowable natural world providing an arena for morally significant free choices is a great good. And there is aesthetic value in the order of the natural world itself.
- Being able to form our own character in response to evil and suffering is good. Such character growth, in fact, may be the only way for finite created beings to fully enter into a relationship with God and experience perfect happiness.
- The existence of evil and suffering allows God’s redemptive response to that evil and suffering, which is very good. More generally, I think true stories of conquering evil are morally valuable.
- There are relational goods that may only be realized in response to evil (for example, sacrificing oneself for another, or love relationships forged by experiencing suffering together).
All of this goes to show that God may have reasons to allow some evil and suffering, but does it show that he has reasons to allow as much evil and suffering as exists in the actual world? The answer to that is, for all we know, it certainly could. The fact is that there is a lot of evil in the world that seems to serve no purpose – but from our limited perspective, we cannot expect to be able to see all of the reasons that God has for any specific instance of evil. The huge complexity of the world means that we can only see so far – whereas God’s foreknowledge stretches from the beginning to the end of time.
The other thing to consider when trying to evaluate whether the amount of evil in the world can be justified is that, if Christianity is true, there is the potential of an eternity of perfect happiness to counterbalance any extent of suffering experienced in our mortal lives, no matter how great. And, I think, the issue of free will that I have been talking about plays into that.
In order for a community of finite, created beings to experience perfect happiness in relationship with God and with each other, for eternity, they have to make certain choices. They have to choose not to pursue their own happiness at the expense of others. They have to make wise choices that will not lead to harm. Because God is perfectly good and only he knows completely what is best, they have to choose to submit to God and allow him to guide them. And they will have to go on making these choices forever.
Though some Christians believe free will is going to be taken away or changed somehow when we are brought into the new creation, so that it is no longer possible for us to sin, I think that may not be the case: I am inclined to think that free will is necessary for a true loving relationship, whether we are in heaven or not. But that raises an interesting question, to me.
What if all our experiences of evil and suffering – our individual experiences, including our moral growth, and the collective experience of humanity and all of the lessons learned from “doing things our own way” – is exactly what God foreknows is needed to create a community of moral agents who can experience perfect happiness together forever? What if, by allowing a finite amount of evil and suffering, God secures an infinite amount of good, freely chosen by his creatures?
And what if, because of God’s love for us, every individual human life has unique, irreplaceable value to him? What if the amount of evil and suffering in our world is precisely what God must allow, and no more, in order for all the goods of this world to be realized – including eternal life for each of the specific individuals who freely choose to follow him? If these last two “what if’s” are possible, then there could actually be a respect in which this world is better than any other possible reality, which would be enough to justify God’s decision to create it.
Often, the problem of evil is raised up as the problem for belief in God. But in the end I do not think it is anywhere near a definitive disproof of God’s existence. There could very well be reasons for God to allow evil. We can think of a number of such reasons in general. And given our limited ability to survey the vast complexity and scope of history, we should not expect to be able to see God’s reasons for allowing specific evils in many cases.
So again, the problem of evil presents a tension in the theistic worldview, but not one that cannot be overcome. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the problem of evil (especially when combined with the problem of divine hiddenness) is the emotional one: pain hurts, and it is natural to ask why God lets painful things happen to us or to loved ones, or why he does not at least show up personally to comfort us when those things happen.
All the philosophizing in the world is probably not enough to answer someone going through a time that makes them ask those questions, but I do appreciate what William Lane Craig has to say on that subject: although the problem of evil introduces a tension in the Christian story, in the end, it is the Christian story that provides the greatest comfort in the face of evil. He says it better than I do, so rather than elaborate further, I will just link it here. I encourage you to give it a look.
In this blog I have surveyed what I believe to be seven (or so, depending on how you count them) fairly strong arguments for the existence of God. But it is nonetheless true that God’s existence is not completely obvious to most people in the way that, say, the existence of the physical world is obvious. So why is the evidence for God’s existence not more direct? Why doesn’t God make his presence as clear as day to everyone – especially when he supposedly wants people to know him?
This is the problem of divine hiddenness, also called the argument from non-belief, and to me it is one of the two strongest arguments for atheism (together with the problem of evil, which I will discuss in the next post). It can be formulated simply as follows:
- If God exists, then he is perfectly loving.
- If God is perfectly loving, he would make it so that every person believes that he exists.
- Some persons do not believe that God exists.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
The gist of the argument is that, if God existed, he would want to be in a loving relationship with every person he created. But a precondition for being in a loving relationship with God is believing that God exists. So, God would ensure that everyone is aware of his existence in order for it to be at least possible for them to enter into a relationship with him.
Since in fact it does not appear to be the case that everyone is aware of God’s existence, this line of reasoning lends support to the belief that God does not exist.
Evaluating the Argument
As a theist who finds the axiological and ontological arguments for God compelling, I am in complete agreement with the first premise: if God exists, then he is perfectly loving. So we can take that as a given.
The third premise, I believe, is also fairly obviously true. There are Christians who claim (on the basis of a couple verses in the Bible) that deep down, everyone really believes that God exists: no one is truly an atheist, and anyone who claims they are is lying, even to themselves. I have come to think that this is a very mistaken response. It is extremely uncharitable, it actually isn’t well supported by Scripture, and it isn’t well supported by the testimony of many current and former non-theists. See this article by Randal Rauser for more on that. So I also accept the premise that there are real atheists and agnostics out there.
The second premise is more questionable. Here is how it might be justified. Since God is perfectly loving, he desires the best for everyone. Since God is the locus of all value, being in a personal, loving relationship with God is the greatest good that anyone can experience. So God desires for everyone to be in a right relationship with him. And more simply, since he loves everyone, he desires relationship with them for its own sake: and he would certainly reach out to them rather than abandoning them to an existence devoid of the goodness of his presence.
Now, if belief in God is indeed a precondition for right relationship with him, then we can make the inference from “God desires for everyone to be in a right relationship with him” to “God desires for everyone to believe that he exists”. And I think it is certainly the case that, for the kind of deep and reciprocal relationship that God ultimately desires us to have, belief is required. However:
- Not all persons may be capable of belief in God. (For example, infants or cognitively impaired persons.) Nevertheless, it may be that such persons can still have a kind of relationship with God, the way that even an unborn child has a kind of relationship with her mother.
- Since God is not just one personal being among others, but is also the ground and locus of all value, it may be possible to have a positive relationship with God even without believing in him, by relating to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
- If God has foreknowledge of our free choices, he knows whether producing belief would lead to the kind of positive relationship that he is interested in. There may be those who, upon coming to believe that God exists, would still reject relationship with him, enter into an improper relationship with him, or enter into a relationship with him which they would ultimately choose to forsake. (Such persons may or may not be culpable for being in these contrary states; there can be a variety of reasons for such dispositions.) God’s reasons for producing belief in these cases are much reduced.
- Similar to the above point, there may be people to whom God has given sufficient rational grounds for belief in his existence, who have freely and culpably rejected those grounds, or who have shut themselves off from God in some other way (for example, by refusing to seek God because of a desire to be in control of their own life). Not desiring a coerced relationship, God’s reasons for forcing belief on such persons are also reduced.
This means there is some reason to doubt that God’s desire for relationship automatically leads to God’s desire to produce belief in his existence. Furthermore, even if God desires for someone to believe that he exists, that does not imply that he has an all-things-considered desire for that person to believe that he exists. God may have other considerations, some in favour of allowing created persons to remain unaware of his existence, at least for a time. Here are some reasons for divine hiddenness:
- Delaying in making evidence available for a person to believe in God may alter their circumstances in such a way that they enter into a higher quality relationship with him later than they would have if he had made such evidence available earlier. (Daniel Howard-Snyder argues along these lines in this paper.)
- Divine hiddenness may allow for greater independence and interdependence of creatures, benefiting our moral development. (Dustin Crummett makes this suggestion here.)
- Divine hiddenness may reduce coercion in some situations and allow for more opportunity to freely choose what is good for the right reasons (i.e. because it is good, not just for fear of punishment, for example).
- Perhaps it is appropriate to God’s holiness to maintain a certain degree of distance from his creatures.
- Because of the butterfly effect, divine hiddenness could lead to better possible outcomes in ways that are totally unpredictable from a human perspective, but that can be foreseen by an all-knowing God.
(Take a look here for a resource that explores some of these possibilities further, with references to other philosophical works.)
In evaluating why God may remain hidden from some people, we also have to consider that if God exists, then human persons may have an eternity before them in which to relate to God: our mortal lives may just be an infinitesimal sliver of the whole of our existence. Which means that for all we know, God’s sacrificing some depth of relationship for a short time in order to obtain other goods may very well be justified.
Given these considerations, I am far from certain that the second premise of the problem of divine hiddenness can be sufficiently supported. Perhaps we could modify it:
- If God is perfectly loving, then for every person A who is capable of entering into a personal relationship with God, such that A has not culpably shut themselves off from relationship with God in some way, God brings it about that A believes in his existence, unless he has an overriding reason to permit A to remain in non-belief.
I can accept this premise with reasonable certainty. But then we need to modify the third premise in order for the argument to remain valid:
- There is at least one person who has not culpably shut themselves off from relationship with God, and who has not come to believe in God’s existence; and God has no overriding reason to allow this person to remain in unbelief.
And this premise is quite plausibly false. At the very least, it seems impossible to prove from a human perspective: we cannot possibly be in a position to adequately evaluate all of God’s reasons for doing something, and we can think of a few reasons in favour of divine hiddenness that cannot be ruled out conclusively.
(Note: There is, perhaps, one very important consideration which the proponent of the hiddenness argument could raise to say that God cannot have an overriding reason to allow anyone to indefinitely remain in unbelief: the person’s eternal salvation depending on having a right relationship with God. This gets into the problems of religious pluralism and exclusivity, which I will discuss in upcoming posts.)
Thus, I think it is quite reasonable to disbelieve this modified premise (provided the theist has a response to the problems of religious pluralism and exclusivity). Which means that, while the problem of divine hiddenness introduces some tension into a theistic worldview, in the end I do not find that tension to be insurmountable. After all, there is evidence for God’s existence, so he is not and does not remain completely hidden. And it may very well be that this evidence is enough to accomplish God’s purposes in this world: enough for people to seek him and begin a loving relationship with him, if they so choose.
Obviously, I have only scratched the surface of this topic, and there is a great deal of philosophical work that has been done (and that is still being done) to explore it further. I have to admit that in this post I haven’t dealt with the problem of divine hiddenness in as much depth as I’d like. In the future, I may come back to expand on what I’ve written here. For now, I want to keep moving on to new topics (and I don’t have as much time for blogging these days), so I am content with this overview.
Do we really need a reason to not believe in God? Isn’t atheism the default position?
To answer this question we need to distinguish between believing that God does not exist on one hand, and not believing that God exists on the other. The former is the belief in an absence. The latter is simply the absence of a belief.
“Atheism” is commonly defined as the belief that God does not exist, but there are a growing number of people who define it in a weaker sense as the state of not believing that God exists (beginning with Antony Flew, who first suggested to use “atheism” in this way). For clarity, I will call the former sense “positive atheism” and the latter sense “negative atheism”.
So then, is atheism the default position? The answer depends on whether you mean positive or negative atheism.
If you mean negative atheism, then yes! I am in complete agreement that negative atheism is the default epistemic state. One does not need arguments or evidence to be a negative atheist, because negative atheism isn’t a belief at all. Being merely the lack of a belief, it does not assert that anything is true, and so requires no justification. It is just a description of someone’s subjective mental state. Babies, cats, and rocks are all negative atheists, since they do not hold a belief in the existence of God. (At least, we don’t think they do.) Positive atheists are negative atheists, but the converse isn’t necessarily true – agnostics are also negative atheists. (Which is why, if you want to distinguish between atheism and agnosticism, you have to mean positive atheism.)
Negative atheism is trivial. Note that we can just as well define “negative theism” to mean not believing that God does not exist, and then that is also the default position! (Someone can lack both the belief that God exists and the belief that God does not exist, and indeed the babies, cats, and rocks of the last paragraph are in that position – along with the agnostics.)
Because “negative atheism” is so trivial, it is only a useful category in some sociological contexts – in studying the kind of things that people believe, for example. But when we are talking about more than that – when we are talking about whether or not God really exists, not just what people believe about that – what we care about is “positive atheism”.
And there, the situation is quite different. If you claim that positive (not merely negative) atheism is the default position, well, you are simply wrong. Positive atheism is a belief – it takes a stand and asserts that something is true (namely, that God does not exist). And we should have reasons for believing what we do. We should seek to have justified beliefs. Thus, positive atheism requires justification to back up the assertion that it makes, which means it is not the default position.
I think this is worth repeating. The claim that God does not exist is no less strong of an assertion about the nature of reality than the claim that he does. So atheism (that is, positive atheism) is not an epistemically neutral stance. In order to be an atheist in any philosophically significant sense of the word, you have to have reasons.
To put a bit more rhetoric behind this statement: the atheist who says that he needs no evidence for atheism (because it is the “default”) is no better than the fideist who says that he needs no evidence for theism (because he accepts it by “faith”). Worse, even: at least the fideist usually recognizes that his position is irrational.
You’ll find atheists who say that atheism is not a claim, and therefore it has no burden of proof. But this can only be true of negative atheism: if said about positive atheism, it is blatantly false. The distinction between theism and atheism is not that one claims something and the other doesn’t. Rather, the distinction is that one is a positive existential claim (it claims that something exists) and the other is a negative existential claim (it claims that something does not exist).
And there is nothing about negative existential claims which makes them exceptions to the rule that we should have rational justification for what we believe. For comparison: philosophical idealism makes a negative existential claim, but that does not make it the default position, nor does it allow us to deny the reality of the physical world without valid reasons.
Reasons for Atheism
The saying “you can’t prove a negative” becomes relevant here. Some people assume that this is true, and that it means that justification for a negative existential claim can’t actually be given, letting atheism off the hook. But this saying is false. There are perfectly good ways to justify negative existential claims. There are, in fact, some reasons to believe atheism. Therefore, the requirement that atheists have reasons to be atheists is not unreasonable.
First, though, here are a few statements that are not reasons to be an atheist:
- “There isn’t any evidence for God.”
If by “evidence” you mean the kind of natural, physical evidences that we study with science, then you’re looking in the wrong place. It presupposes atheism or philosophical materialism to insist that all justification for beliefs has to be evidence of this kind. Moreover, it is self-refuting, since we rely on certain non-evidential beliefs in order to acquire and use evidence at all. Construing “evidence” more broadly to mean any rational justification for a belief, this objection is false. See: all my previous posts on arguments for God’s existence.
- “None of the arguments for God’s existence are convincing.”
This leaves you without a reason to believe that God exists, but it doesn’t give any reason to believe that he doesn’t. So at best, this leaves you with agnosticism. If you say you can be an atheist merely because you haven’t been convinced about theism, then you might as well say you can believe anything you want as long as it is not obviously false. I think rational belief requires a little bit more than that.
- “God isn’t a valid explanation of anything.”
This objection is sometimes used against the cosmological or teleological arguments, saying that the God hypothesis is really a non-explanation. But for one, this objection is false: if God exists and created the universe, then God obviously would be an explanation for the existence of the universe. (And so the claim that God is a non-explanation just presupposes atheism, without justification.) And for two, even if true, this objection would only negate reasons for theism, rather than providing reasons for atheism.
(See also here for a further exploration of the not-a-valid-explanation objection.)
- “Science shows that God doesn’t exist.” Or, “Science shows that we don’t need to posit God to explain anything.”
No, it doesn’t. I’ve written about this before. But by way of brief response: science allows us to explain a lot of things via natural causes, but it cannot explain everything, and it certainly cannot explain where those natural causes themselves come from. (To take up that question is to leave the realm of empirical science and go deep into the realm of philosophy.)
With those out of the way, here is one statement that is a valid reason to be an atheist (if true):
- “There isn’t enough evidence for God’s existence, compared to the amount that there would be if he did exist.”
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes – unless we should have that evidence if the thing did in fact exist. (For a more in-depth exploration of that principle, see here.) Where this is used as an argument for atheism, it is known as the problem of divine hiddenness. More generally, we can provide justification for negative existential claims in the following way:
- “If X exists, then Y should be true. But Y is false. Therefore, X does not exist.”
This is the logical form behind the problem of evil and other arguments against God’s existence. These are the kind of arguments that can actually justify atheism, and they are what I will be exploring in upcoming posts.
Implausibility of Theism
There is one further argument that I will address which is relevant to the question of whether or not atheism can be considered the default epistemic position. It is raised by Paul Draper in his article on atheism and agnosticism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The idea behind this “low priors” argument is that theism is intrinsically improbable, so that even before taking any evidence into account, the presumption is in favour of atheism.
Draper argues for the low prior probability of omni-theism (his term for the kind of theism that I believe follows from the arguments for natural theology) by comparing it to an alternative position that he calls source physicalism:
- Source physicalism: the physical world is ontologically ultimate, and any mental reality depends on the physical for its existence.
- Source idealism: the mental world is ontologically ultimate, and physical reality depends on the mental for its existence.
- Omni-theism: a subset of source idealism, which further specifies the ontological ultimate to be a unique, perfect person.
Draper’s claim is that 1) source physicalism and source idealism have equal intrinsic probabilities, principally because of the symmetry between the two positions, and 2) omni-theism is a very specific version of source idealism and therefore it must be much less intrinsically probable than source idealism in general. From this it follows that 3) omni-theism is much less intrinsically probable than source physicalism.
These claims are, of course, contestable. Despite Draper’s assertion, there is an asymmetry between source physicalism and source idealism, both in regards to our epistemic position (we can doubt the existence of the physical world, but we cannot rationally doubt the existence of our own minds), and in regards to their ontological status (there are mental phenomena that do not seem possible to derive from the physical world even in principle). It seems to me that these are a priori considerations that could tip the balance in favour of source idealism in terms of its intrinsic probability, over source physicalism.
Second, it seems to me that Draper’s claim about the specificity of omni-theism, compared to source idealism, is greatly exaggerated. Over and above source idealism, omni-theism simply claims that the ontological ultimate is personal instead of impersonal, one instead of many, and perfect instead of imperfect. The first of these additional claims arguably has the advantage due to similar considerations as those in the last paragraph. And the latter two claims are in some sense simpler than their counterparts, and could claim greater intrinsic probability on that basis.
Finally, omni-theism is actually a very simple hypothesis: it postulates the existence of a single entity (an immaterial person) who can be described by perhaps just three properties (knowledge, power, and goodness) and who possesses those properties in the simplest possible way (to the maximum degree, with no limitations). Compare this to Draper’s source physicalism, which has to postulate the brute existence of a number of physical entities, laws, constants, and initial conditions (or some kind of mechanism for generating such). So I would say that considerations of simplicity actually tip the balance of intrinsic probability in favour of theism!
So I don’t believe that Draper is successful in his argument that omni-theism is many times less probable, intrinsically, than source physicalism. Which means that is not a good reason to take atheism as the “default position”.
An aside on Draper’s arguments in the article referenced above:
I might add that Draper’s complete “low priors” argument also includes the premise that the total evidence does not favour omni-theism over source physicalism. (Where “evidence” in this context means any rational source of justification for a belief – experience, arguments, etc.) Combining this with the premise that omni-theism is intrinsically much less probable than source physicalism, he concludes that omni-theism is very probably false, and thus, atheism (understood just as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.
As I said, I think there is reason to doubt the premise about the intrinsic probabilities of omni-theism and source physicalism. But even if that were established, I absolutely disagree with this claim about the balance of the evidence. Justifying it requires one to undercut or defeat all of the arguments for omni-theism from natural theology, or at least to balance them with equally strong arguments for source physicalism. And that, from my perspective, is a very difficult task.
(Draper’s appeal to the “fallacy of understated evidence” is a good starting point for discussion about potential weaknesses or balancing considerations of certain theistic arguments, but it in no way shows that those considerations actually succeed in reducing the force of those arguments by a significant degree.)
Interestingly, the failure of this premise is related in a way to the potential success of the other one. One of the ways that Draper tries to justify his premise about the intrinsic improbability of omni-theism is by saying that omni-theism makes very specific claims, each of which must reduce its probability. But if we’re being rational, we theists don’t just make those claims out of the blue. We make specific claims about God and reality because of reasons that we see for them (for example, from natural theology). So in the end, theism’s level of intrinsic probability doesn’t really matter. The important thing is its probability when the evidence is taken into account.
One more note: Draper has a second argument for atheism in that article, his “decisive evidence” argument. This one isn’t really a distinct argument, since its premises basically assert that 1) none of the argument for theism are successful, and 2) there is an argument for atheism that is successful. (There’s more nuance to it than that, but when you really break it down the premises are justified only if those two things are true.)
So far, I’ve explored two reasons that are often put forward for rejecting theism in favour of atheism: arguments that theism is impossible, and the presumption of atheism as the default epistemic position. And in my honest evaluation, neither of these carry any rational weight whatsoever.
In the next few weeks I will explore some atheistic arguments that I think do have force.
In my last post, I began exploring the concept of God in order to examine its coherence.
If the concept of God is logically contradictory, then the debate about the existence of God would be over – logically contradictory things, like square circles, don’t exist. So far, however, all of the supposed contradictions that I have come across rely on non-logical premises which may be questioned (for example, “persons cannot exist timelessly”). And the arguments for the existence of God give us reason to question those premises.
The Concept of God, Continued
Informally, omniscience is the property of “knowing everything,” though I think it is more accurate to characterize it as perfect or maximal knowledge. To give a precise definition, most theists would say that, at the very least, God has the following property:
Propositional omniscience: knowing every true proposition and believing no false propositions.
God has this property alongside appropriate self-knowledge, that is to say, he knows propositions like “God is omniscient,” but he also knows that he himself is God, so that he correctly believes that he is omniscient. (For a contrasting example, God knows “Justin Trudeau is the prime minister of Canada,” but God also knows that he himself is not Justin Trudeau. So he does not believe the statement “I am the prime minister of Canada” even though that statement is true, at present, if spoken by Trudeau.)
God’s omniscience is essential to him, and his knowledge of every true proposition is also innate rather than learned or perceived. God does not know what is happening in the world because he looks out and perceives it; rather, he simply knows all truth innately. That is, God’s knowledge is more like intuition than perception.
When I wrote about epistemology I said that the best definition of knowledge seems to be validly justified true belief, and that valid justification can be analyzed in terms of counterfactual implications between truth and belief. Because it is metaphysically necessary (if God exists) that God believes all and only true propositions, God’s beliefs automatically satisfy this definition of knowledge.
However, the fact that God essentially knows every truth does not preclude the possibility that some of his knowledge is logically dependent on his will. Just as God has counterfactual control over whether reality is timeless or temporal, God has counterfactual control over some of his knowledge, based on what world he decides to actualize. I believe we can group God’s propositional knowledge into four categories:
Natural knowledge: this is God’s knowledge of every metaphysically necessary truth (in other words, all truths about what is metaphysically possible). These truths are independent of God’s will.
Middle knowledge: this is God’s knowledge of contingent subjunctive conditionals of indeterminacy about possible created beings (in other words, for any free creature or indeterminate cause that God could create and any circumstance in which God could place them, God knows what that creature would do if they were in that circumstance). These truths are also independent of God’s will, given that God can create genuinely indeterminate causes or beings with genuine free will.
Knowledge of his own will: this is God’s knowledge of contingent subjunctive conditionals of indeterminacy about himself (I believe God knows who and what he would create and what circumstances he would actualize, given any set of subjunctive conditionals of indeterminacy about possible created beings). Crucially, these truths are dependent on God’s will, since God’s choices are up to God.
Free knowledge: this is God’s knowledge of contingent truths in the indicative mood (in other words, all truths about the actual world that do not fall under the other two categories). These truths are dependent on God’s will (though not dependent solely on his will), following logically from his creative decision and the truths in his natural and middle knowledge.
The above understanding of God’s knowledge resolves both the supposed contradiction between foreknowledge and divine freedom (God cannot be free because he already knows what he will do), and the supposed contradiction between foreknowledge and human freedom (we cannot be free because God already knows what we will do). The belief that God has middle knowledge is one of the pillars of a position called Molinism, which I think makes the most sense of God’s omniscience.
Basically, God’s foreknowledge of what we will do is not what causes us to do what we will do. That fact that God knows we will do some action, A, does not mean that any other choice, B, is impossible or beyond our power: it simply means that if we were to choose B instead of A, then it would have been true that God knew we would do B, instead of knowing that we would do A. God’s knowledge tracks our free choices; our choices are not forced to be what they are by the mere fact that God foreknows them.
There are some objections against the middle knowledge component of God’s omniscience, the most pressing of which I think are the grounding objection and the explanatory priority objection. However, I believe those have received adequate responses: for example, William Lane Craig on the grounding objection, and Wes Morriston on explanatory priority. (And maybe also the divine voodoo objection; see Randy Everist’s response to that one.)
I believe there is probably one further aspect to God’s omniscience than the knowledge of all propositional truths that I have described above. I think it may be the case that God has a kind of experiential omniscience: God can represent to himself all possible qualia, and so in addition to knowing propositions like “strawberries are red,” he knows what red looks like and what strawberries taste like, for example. (You might call this the ability of divine imagination.)
Can God make a stone so heavy that even he cannot lift it? That is the classic challenge to the concept of omnipotence. Here’s the gist of the answer: that question is either ill-defined or doesn’t actually make sense, when you think about it. And if you make enough sense of it to give it an answer, then it doesn’t reveal any contradiction in the concept of omnipotence, properly understood.
It is for the property of omnipotence, more than any other, that it is important to remember why we would want to ascribe such a property to God. From a Christian perspective, the most that we really need to say to align with scripture is that God is supremely powerful, greater in power than any other being, and sufficiently powerful to perform the actions that scripture attributes to him. (Verses in the Bible like “with God, all things are possible” are not intended as axioms of analytic philosophy – it goes beyond the context of the verse to say that it means, for example, that God can do logically impossible things.)
And philosophical reflection on the idea of God as a perfect being only requires us to say that God has the greatest possible degree of power, or that he has perfect power. None of this requires the theist to believe that God is capable of doing anything that is logically impossible, or that he can create contradictions.
Which is why the majority of philosophers and theologians through the ages have agreed that omnipotence does not entail that are absolutely no logical limits on what God can do. Often, this is put colloquially as “omnipotence means that God can do everything – but logical contradictions are just nonsense combinations of words, not real things, so God does not have to have the power to do them.”
In their essay “Maximal Power,” Thomas Flint and Alfred Freddoso present a precise definition of omnipotence, guided by reflection on what things must be logically impossible for anyone to do. They effectively define omnipotence as being able to actualize any state of affairs logically possible for an agent to actualize, recognizing in particular the following limits that must apply to any agent:
- Only metaphysically possible states of affairs can be actualized (you can’t cause a causeless event, for example: if you caused it, it wouldn’t be causeless).
- It is logically impossible to change the past (you can’t make it so that something that has happened, has not happened).
- It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something in a given circumstance if that is not what they would freely do in that circumstance (forcing someone to do something makes it so that it is not done freely).
If you’re curious about how supposed contradictions of omnipotence can be resolved, and want to challenge yourself with a little bit of technical reading, I recommend the above article so you can see the details of Flint and Freddoso’s definition.
So how does this answer the stone paradox? Well, since God is omnipotent, he can make a very heavy stone, but since he is essentially omnipotent, he cannot make himself unable to lift it as long as it is metaphysically possible for that stone to be lifted: that would require actualizing a contradiction in which an omnipotent being is unable to actualize a possible state of affairs.
On the flip side, God could make a stone that is metaphysically impossible for anyone to lift as long as such a thing makes sense, and then he would not be able to lift it: but this would not impinge on his omnipotence, because lifting the stone is simply not metaphysically possible.
The above article also addresses the alleged contradiction between omnipotence and impeccability (that is, God’s inability to sin) in their article: how can God be omnipotent if he is incapable of acting in any way that would be less than morally perfect? The answer is that, since moral perfection is an essential attribute of God, any state of affairs in which God commits sin is metaphysically impossible. Thus, omnipotence does not require God to be able to actualize such states of affairs.
Another possible response to the tension between omnipotence and impeccability is simply to say that God actually is able to commit evil in some circumstances (say, by becoming incarnate as a human being and thereby being exposed to temptation); but he simply never chooses to commit evil and thus retains his moral perfection. Andrew Loke suggests that position in his essay here. I do not take that view, but if properly understood I think it could be defensible.
God’s goodness, as I already discussed in my series on the axiological argument, is generally believed to consist in him having moral virtues (such as love, faithfulness, justice, mercy, and so on) essentially and perfectly. So to say that God is good is to say that his character or his essential nature has certain traits, and not others. It is therefore a meaningful statement, and logically coherent as long as there is no contradiction between the various virtues which make up goodness.
One contradiction that has been claimed is that God’s perfect justice cannot be compatible with his perfect mercy. Within Christianity, this tension is addressed by the doctrine of the atonement, which is something that I will write about in later posts. I don’t think it is too difficult to find a reasonable and coherent formulation of that doctrine. But, I will briefly discuss this objection here.
The justice versus mercy contradiction can go something like this:
- Justice is giving a person the punishment they deserve.
- Mercy is not giving a person the punishment they deserve.
- Therefore no one can be perfectly just and perfectly merciful.
There are a couple of responses can be made to this. First, it may be that divine justice can be served in ways other than giving a person the punishment they deserve: for example, God himself could bear the deserved punishment in order to offer redemption to the guilty person, thereby taking care of his justice and mercy in one go. That, of course, is precisely what the traditional Christian doctrine says.
And second, it may be that “perfectly just” and “perfectly merciful” do not necessarily mean “always, maximally just” and “always, maximally merciful” – perhaps perfect justice (respectively, mercy) simply entails “being just (merciful) whenever it is fitting or best to be just (merciful)”. I haven’t seen any contradictions claimed between other attributes within God’s goodness, but something similar could be said about them, if there was.
God’s essential moral perfection is usually taken to imply the further attribute of impeccability, meaning that God is unable to sin or act in any morally imperfect way. I discussed the tension that this raises with omnipotence in the last section; but it has also been thought to conflict with God’s goodness. Can we really call God good, and praise him for his goodness, if he really had no choice but to act good? Furthermore, if God has no choice but to act good, does he really do so freely?
To answer the above questions: I see no problem with calling God’s actions good and morally praiseworthy, as long as his good actions are freely chosen. And because God is omnipotent, uncaused, and completely self-sufficient, all of his actions are perfectly free. No person or circumstance can force God to act in a way that he does not choose, and God’s choices do not originate from anywhere outside of himself.
That, I believe, is the essence of free will: being the originator of one’s own choices and actions. Hence, God’s good actions are freely chosen, and so even though it is not possible for God to act in a way that is not morally perfect, his moral perfection is still praiseworthy.
An excellent paper on the interplay between God’s goodness and his freedom to create whichever world he wants, or no world at all, is Alexander Pruss’ essay Divine Creative Freedom. The basic idea in the paper is that incommensurability between different types of goods means that there is a diverse (probably infinite) multitude of possible worlds which are all “best possible worlds” in some respect. And so, God is free to choose from among those worlds without contradicting his goodness.
Immutability and Simplicity
There are a couple other properties which have been attributed to God in some traditions which often serve as a source of contradictions. Specifically, it is sometimes claimed that God is completely immutable in the sense of being unable to change in any way. And then there is the idea of divine simplicity, which is rather ironically named, since it is an extremely difficult concept to understand.
The Bible says that God does not change, but in context that verse (Malachi 3:6, if you’re curious) is best understood as referring to his nature and character in how he extends grace to his people. I see no pressing religious or philosophical motivation for believing that God is completely immutable in any stronger sense than that his character remains steadfast. So, any logical contradictions with immutability in the stronger sense do not apply.
Moving on, divine simplicity refers to the idea that God has absolutely no kind of complexity or differentiation in himself. Divine simplicity in this sense says that God is not a being that has properties, rather, he is his properties, and all of his properties are really identical to each other (and to him), and his essence just equals his existence (whatever that means). If that makes no sense to you: that’s fine, because there is also really no good scriptural or philosophical reason for believing it as far as I can see. Which means that any logical contradictions in divine simplicity so understood (or not understood) are irrelevant to the logical coherence of the concept of God more generally.
In a weaker sense, there are ways in which God can be understood as not having various forms of metaphysical complexity: he is not composed of a mind and a body, for example (nor is he composed of separable components at all). For another example, because of his eternality, omniscience, and omnipotence, we can view his actions in the world as really just aspects of a single creative act. But nothing about divine simplicity in that weaker sense requires us to believe contradictions.
The Coherence of Theism
Having surveyed the basic concept of God in these last two posts, it seems to me that it is quite coherent, and the most common objections from incoherence that I have seen are unsuccessful. Which means that the easiest route to argue against God’s existence is blocked.
It’s sometimes said that “you can’t prove a negative,” meaning, it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist – but in fact, that is not true. If you can show that the concept of a thing is logically contradictory, then that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the thing does not exist.
The easiest way, then, to disprove God’s existence would be to show that the concept of God is logically incoherent. There have been many attempts at this. Nevertheless, I can say fairly confidently that none of them have been successful. The basic concept of God is logically coherent, and none of the alleged contradictions hold, so far as I have seen.
Before I begin to address the main topic of this post, I want to briefly mention a somewhat related position known as theological non-cognitivism. This is the position that sentences about God are literally meaningless, and that whenever people express something about God, there is actually no propositional content to their expression. Non-cognitivists of this stripe would say that when someone says “God loves you,” for example, they are really just expressing emotional content, like sympathy for that person’s plight, or something.
I think it hardly needs to be said, but this position is false. “God exists” is not a meaningless statement expressing one’s hope for some abstract kind of well-being. It is a claim about reality that is fairly well-understood by most English-language speakers, and believed to be either true or false. (And I’m sure you could say the same about the translation of that sentence for speakers of other languages as well.)
If you don’t understand what someone means when they say that God exists, then hopefully, this post and the next should help to clear things up for you.
The Concept of God
In order to assess whether the concept of God is logically coherent, we have to know what concept we are talking about, which means we need to know what source material we are using for our ideas about God. So here they are:
- Scriptures and religious tradition
- Arguments for God’s existence from natural theology
- Reflection on the concept of God as a perfect being or the greatest possible being
Since I find the historical argument gives good reason to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore the truth of Christianity, I put the Bible and Christian tradition in the first category, though theists of other religions may use different sources. (Sometime in the future I will be writing a few posts on exactly why I believe we can know about God from the Bible, but that will have to wait.) I have already written a lot about the second category on this blog. And the third category can be seen as an important subset of the second, with a focus on the ontological argument.
With that being said, it is important to recognize that the Bible is not a work of analytic philosophy and does not use words like “omnipotent” or “omniscient,” much less provide precise definitions for such terms. Scripture and religious tradition do not fully specify the attributes of God, which means there is room for philosophical reflection to develop the concept of God in a coherent way.
And since the motivation for ascribing terms like “omnipotent” or “omniscient” comes from the basic concept of a perfect being or greatest possible being, we can be flexible in coming up with the precise definitions of these terms as well. Omnipotence, for example, means having perfect power or the maximum possible degree of power. As long as we can formulate a precise definition along those lines that is not logically contradictory or theologically problematic, it is coherent to include omnipotence in the concept of God.
With that, I think the best way to show the overall coherence of theism is to survey the attributes that make up the concept of God, and deal with incoherence objections as they come up.
(Note: I am not intending here to deal with any objections to the coherence of specifically Christian aspects of the concept of God, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. I will have blog posts about those further down the road, when I explore what I believe and why regarding Christian doctrines.)
One of the most basic aspects of the concept of God is that he is a personal being without any material body. God is a spiritual entity, not a physical entity. (You could say “mental entity” in place of “spiritual entity” if you like, as long as by that you do not mean something like a concept, instead of an immaterial being with the capacity to think about concepts.)
Hence, God is something like an immaterial mind or soul. This is only incoherent if the concept of an immaterial mind is incoherent, and I see no reason to think that is the case. In fact, as I’ve written on this blog, I think there is good reason to believe that we ourselves have an immaterial component.
It is occasionally contended that God, as an immaterial being without a body, could not interact with the physical world. This is analogous to the interaction problem raised against the existence of immaterial minds in general. But there is no logical contradiction here. It is simply among the basic causal powers that God has to be able to interact with the physical world.
(Note: this is similar to the way, I believe, that it is simply among the basic causal powers of our own minds to be able to initiate bodily actions. However, this does not mean that we should think of the universe as the body of God, since he is not otherwise related to the universe in the ways that our minds are related to our bodies.)
God is widely believed by theists to be uncreated or self-existent, rather than deriving existence from some other source (in the way that we believe the universe and everything in it derives existence from God). This in turn is often taken to imply that God’s existence is metaphysically necessary, rather than contingent. Moreover, it is generally believed that God is the only being with this property.
The notion of necessary existence is logically coherent, especially if you consider the causal account of modality to be reasonable, as I do. (Since the causal account implies the principle of sufficient reason, which in turn implies the existence of a necessary being via the cosmological argument.) Moreover, necessary existence is often attributed to many kinds of abstract objects. So necessary existence is not problematic.
However, the ascription of necessary existence to abstract objects creates a challenge to the idea that God is the only necessarily existent or self-existent being. But this challenge is only problematic if you think that abstract objects really exist (rather than just being conceptual devices that we use to think about the world). I myself am not in that camp.
Even if you do think that abstract objects really exist, the worst case scenario for the belief in God’s aseity is that it has to be qualified in the following way: that God is the only self-existent being among non-abstract objects. Which is not really all that problematic, in my mind: in this case God is still the creator of all spiritual and physical reality (outside of himself).
In addition to necessary existence, an important aspect of God’s nature that is generally associated with aseity is that he is completely self-sufficient: he has absolutely no needs whatsoever, not for his continued existence or his satisfaction. God can act for reasons of bringing about certain goods, but none of his actions are undertaken because he lacks something, and in some sense none of the goods that he brings about fulfill any desire that he has which is not already fulfilled in himself.
(The Christian doctrine of the Trinity makes this self-sufficiency more plausible, since God already experiences perfect loving relationships within his being: he has no need to make creatures to fulfill relational desires.)
There are basically two different views about God’s relationship to time. One is that God is timeless, existing outside of time. The other is that God exists at every moment within time.
One’s view on the nature of time plays a major role in assessing which of these two options is the most coherent. As I have written in earlier posts on this blog, I find that a presentist, A-theory of time is the best way to understand reality. For various reasons (which I might go into more detail about in a future post) this leads me to believe that God exists within time, rather than timelessly existing outside of it. The fact that God’s existence is necessary then implies that he exists at every moment in time.
However, I still have to consider some of the implications of God existing timelessly, since I also believe (for reasons that I touched on when I wrote about the cosmological argument) that God could have existed in a timeless state if that’s what he wanted. (And though I wrote that last clause in the past tense, it really should express a tenseless counterfactual mood; but that is hard to express clearly in English.)
This brings me to one of the major objections to the logical coherence of the concept of God: it requires us to make sense of the concept of a timelessly existing being with personhood and agency. This is admittedly difficult to comprehend, but it is not logically contradictory, as far as I can see.
Since God’s intellect is unlimited, it seems to me that he could have a full conscious life, sufficient to satisfy any reasonable definition of personhood, in a single changeless mental state. If God were to maintain such a mental state and refrain from creating anything temporal, this state would plausibly be a timeless one. “Maintain” and “refrain” in the last sentence refer to the will of God, which is logically and explanatorily prior to the instantiation of whatever reality is actual.
To elaborate on that last point, agency is evident in this timeless state by recognizing that God has counterfactual control over it: the explanation for why that is the state of reality is that it is God’s will, and if God were to have willed a different state, that different state would have been actual instead. (Again, the past tense here is really meant to express a tenseless counterfactual.) In the “initial state” of reality, God exists with his infinite conscious life and either wills to maintain that state changelessly (in which case it is timeless), or he wills that state to change (in which case the “initial state” really is the first moment of time).
This point of view is commonly summarized by saying that God is timeless without creation, and that he exists within time from the first moment of creation. And because God would have existed even if time did not, he cannot be said to have come into existence at the first moment of time even though technically it is the first moment in which he exists. Thus, I see no logical incoherence in the belief that God exists throughout all time without beginning or end.
Philosopher William Lane Craig is known for defending this view in his writings (a number of which can be found on his website, here), for anyone interested in more detail.
One other alternative to the view that I have just presented, if there is no philosophical incoherence in the concept of an eternal past, is to say that God is necessarily temporal and past eternal. This avoids any possible contradictions in the concept of a timeless person, and only requires us to explain why God chose to create the world when he did, as opposed to any of the infinite moments that had passed prior to the time of creation. The best answer to that question is probably that God, because of his essential freedom, is able to simply choose a point in time out of the infinite possible options at random, since the points are indistinguishable. (An incoherence in that suggests a more general incoherence in the possibility of an eternal past, which brings us back to the view of contingent timelessness.)
One of the most commonly stated attributes of God is his omnipresence, the idea that he is present everywhere. But what exactly does that mean? Theists generally maintain this does not mean that we should think of God as being spread out through space like some kind of diffuse ether. Rather, in some sense he is wholly present everywhere. But again, in what sense?
Since God is incorporeal, I would say that technically speaking, he doesn’t have any spatial location. (In comparison, the immaterial component of a human person is embodied, and so can be said to share the spatial location of the body.) Here, however, two other attributes of God come into play.
- Since God is omniscient and has unlimited mental capacity, he knows and is fully aware of what is happening at every point in space.
- Since God is omnipotent, he is fully capable of acting at every point in space. (And if he actively maintains the universe in existence, as many theists believe, then he is acting at every point in space in a complete way.)
These two facts seem sufficient to me to cover the biblical, theological, and philosophical motivations for attributing omnipresence to God. Hence, omnipresence can be thought of as a function of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, and it is logically coherent if those two attributes are both coherent and compatible with each other.
In my next post I will explore further properties that make up the concept of God to look for potential contradictions, including what are perhaps the three most important properties of God: perfect knowledge, power, and goodness.
In my last two posts I explored the alternative options for explaining the historical evidence (i.e. the evidence that we get from, among other things, treating the early Christian writings as we would any other historical documents, not assuming that they are inspired scripture) related to the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Every possible explanation falls under at least one of the alternatives that I considered there, and aside from the hypothesis of the resurrection (which I have yet to evaluate), all of them either have difficulty explaining the evidence, or are implausible, or both.
My contention now is that the resurrection hypothesis suffers neither of these weaknesses. Is it not particularly implausible, and its explanatory power relative to the alternatives means that it far outweighs all other options as the best explanation for the evidence.
The Resurrection Hypothesis
The resurrection hypothesis is that Jesus, after dying on the cross and being buried in the tomb, was supernaturally raised from death by Yahweh, and that he appeared to his disciples to convince them of his resurrection.
First, I will discuss the plausibility of this hypothesis. Given all the other arguments from natural theology that I have considered, I find it not at all implausible that God exists, which would mean that supernatural intervention in history is at least possible. (I intend to respond to arguments against the existence of God after completing this series of posts, and I do not believe they are successful in overcoming the theistic arguments. So belief in God is quite reasonable.) This means that the only potential implausibility in this hypothesis is whether there is a supernatural being identifiable as Yahweh with the motive to raise Jesus, not whether there is a supernatural being per se.
In my last post I noted that, in the cultural context of that time, miracles were conceived of as signs, typically signs that authenticated the message of the one who did the miracle. (This is something that Jesus himself taught.) In the case of the resurrection, the miracle itself was not a public event. Rather, what was seen was the effect of the miracle present in Jesus himself: his resurrected life. Hence, Jesus was the central and only salient figure in the miracle of the resurrection, and the disciples clearly understood it as affirming the truth of his claims. It seems very reasonable that any supernatural being would know that this is what the resurrection would communicate.
Therefore, since Jesus claimed to have a unique, unprecedented relationship with Yahweh (over and above just being a moral teacher), and was sent to his death because of this, the obvious motive for the resurrection is to vindicate and validate Jesus’ life and claims. And there is no other natural motive for the resurrection that I can think of.
A complete lack of a motive – the theory that the resurrection was a completely random supernatural event – raises the question of why this has apparently only happened to one person throughout history. I argued in my last post that “causing mischief” does not really fit, and I am not sure that there are any other options for motives that are completely tangential to Jesus’ message. And “deceptively affirming Jesus’ message” doesn’t seem very plausible to me either, for a couple of reasons.
One of those reasons is that, from my perspective, the Christian worldview makes the most sense of reality. If it is the result of a grand deception, then what is behind the façade? I find it hard to imagine a coherent motive for deceptively validating Jesus’ message. The other is that we have reasons from natural theology to believe in a supremely good and powerful God as the source of all reality. If the being that raised Jesus is to be identified with this God, then it is not plausible that God would engage in deception of that kind.
If on the other hand the being that raised Jesus is some other supernatural entity, then that being would be created by God and constrained by his power. But if that being’s motive was to deceive, I find it implausible that God would allow such a deception to be validated by that kind of miracle – arguably the one miracle throughout all of history that we have the best evidence for.
Thus, I believe the only plausible motive for a supernatural being to raise Jesus from the dead is to genuinely (not deceptively) vindicate him and authenticate his identity and message. (Or at least, the only plausible motives include that motive as a part.) Because Jesus claimed a unique relationship with Yahweh and taught that Yahweh was the one who raised him from the dead, affirming Jesus’ message involves accepting or appropriating that identification.
This means the only supernatural being who plausibly would have this motive is the God revealed by the reasoning of natural theology. Yahweh was conceived of by the Jews of Jesus’ day as the greatest of all gods, the God and creator of the whole universe – both it’s natural and supernatural realms – and the only being truly worthy of worship. He was ascribed goodness, justice, compassion, power, and knowledge to the utmost degree. No created supernatural power could genuinely accept that identity.
So then, is it plausible that God, the unique perfect being and creator of all other reality, would raise Jesus from the dead and so reveal himself as Yahweh, the God of Israel?
I don’t think it is implausible. If God created embodied moral agents like us humans, it is not unreasonable to think that he would want to make it so that his creatures could be in a right relationship with him. And if Jesus’ identity and message is true, that is what his death and resurrection was ultimately about.
The only good objection I can see at this point is that it is implausible that God’s self-revelation would be so particular – coming (for the most part) through one specific people group in one geographic location for two thousand years prior to Jesus’ resurrection, and then having to be spread from the geographic location throughout the world by human agents over the two thousand years following.
That objection deserves a response, but I don’t have the space to fully answer it here without getting off track. But I will discuss it when I explore some of the major objections to belief in God, such as the problem of divine hiddenness, the problem of religious pluralism, and the problem of exclusivity. So stay tuned.
But by way of brief response, the fact that we can know, roughly, what some of God’s intentions are (such as to be in relationship with his creatures) does not imply that we can predict the means by which he will choose to accomplish them. His knowledge, and in particular his foreknowledge, so exceeds ours that we are simply not in a position to accurately evaluate God’s providential decisions over history.
Another important criteria when assessing candidate explanations in abductive reasoning is the degree of parsimony, or simplicity, or the degree to which the theory is ad-hoc. The resurrection hypothesis is successful in this criteria as well. The hypothesis explains both the resurrection appearances and the empty tomb, and it does so by postulating just one event (the resurrection) and one entity (God) – and we have independent reasons to believe in that entity from other theistic arguments.
Neither is the motive ascribed to God by this hypothesis ad-hoc – it flows naturally from the radical claims that Jesus made about his relationship with God. Really, the resurrection hypothesis is the most obvious and straightforward explanation for the evidence.
Accord with Accepted Beliefs
Good hypotheses should avoid contradicting previous well-established beliefs, if possible, and the resurrection hypothesis really has no problem here. The existence of God and the possibility of miracles does not contradict any of the beliefs I have explored about the fundamental nature of reality or its physical and mental constituents. (That men do not rise from the dead naturally is not contradicted by an instance of one man rising supernaturally, for example.)
I could go into the a priori objections against miracles by the likes of Spinoza and Hume, but to be honest, I find those objections to be obviously misconceived, and they’ve already been successfully answered by others. (William Lane Craig surveys and responds to these a priori objections in this article, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on miracles has a good discussion as well.)
Explanatory Power and Scope
Finally, the resurrection hypothesis has high explanatory power for the evidence, and a broad explanatory scope over the evidence. In other words, the resurrection hypothesis explains the greatest amount of evidence compared to the other hypotheses, and the evidence that we have is far more likely given this hypothesis than it is given others (relative to the plausibility of those hypotheses).
As already mentioned, the resurrection hypothesis simply explains both the resurrection appearances and the account of the empty tomb. It does so in a way that is naturally consistent with the details of the evidence: accounting for the bodily nature of the resurrection appearances, the group appearances, the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection and their bold behaviour, the conversions of the “hostile witnesses” Paul and James, and so on.
Arguably, the explanatory power of the resurrection is so high that it overcomes any reasonable degree of implausibility that might be assigned to it: see the essay by Tim and Lydia McGrew, for example, which uses Bayesian reasoning to demonstrate the incredibly high likelihood of the resurrection hypothesis given the evidence. (That essay also contains a good discussion about the impact of the interdependence of the disciples’ testimony on its evidential force.)
There are only a couple of challenges that I can see to the explanatory power of the resurrection hypothesis. They come in the form of two questions. One, if Jesus was raised from the dead, why did he leave? And two, why hasn’t he come back?
There have probably been a lot of Christians throughout history who have thought that things would have been so much easier if Jesus had just stayed on earth rather than ascending into heaven 40 days after the resurrection. (Beginning with the original disciples, at least before Pentecost: “Lord, will you now at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”) But Jesus himself gave us at least a hint of the reason why he left: his spiritual presence is more important than his physical presence, and his departure is an important signifier of that. And there very well could have been downsides to his remaining on earth (it may have ended up tying Christianity too much to a national entity, for example).
Ultimately, Jesus’ departure is really an instance of the problem of divine hiddenness, which I will discuss further in the future. But I might also note (similar to what I’ve already said) that if the resurrection occurred and Jesus is who he said he is, then he is God – so it isn’t implausible that he would act in ways we don’t fully understand!
Enough about Jesus leaving, what about him coming back? Specifically, why didn’t he come back in 70CE when Jerusalem was destroyed, which seems like it is when he predicted his return would be during the Olivet discourse? (See Mark 13, for example.) Some critics of Christianity say that this is a fatal flaw in believing in Jesus – if he predicted that he would return in 70CE, and he didn’t, then he can’t be from God, so the resurrection never happened and Christianity is false. In that case, Jesus was just a failed apocalyptic prophet.
There are a number of responses to this problem, and I think at least some of them answer it quite satisfactorily:
- One possibility is that it is an incorrect interpretation of the text to say that Jesus predicted his bodily return to earth immediately after the fall of Jerusalem. (See, for example, the orthodox preterist interpretation.)
- The idea of an “eschatological delay” was actually a familiar one in Jewish apocalyptic literature of that time period, so the possibility that Jesus’ return would occur later than expected would itself not be foreign to the original audience of the Olivet discourses in the Gospels.
- Some scholars suggest that biblical prophecy often includes implicit conditions on the fulfillment of that prophecy, and that this explains why Jesus didn’t return in 70CE even when he predicted that he would. (I myself am not sure what to think about this one, but I haven’t looked into it very far.)
So the charge that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet is debatable, and simply does not carry enough weight to overturn the resurrection hypothesis. As for the more general question on why Jesus has not come back yet, that is another case where we simply aren’t in an epistemic position to pass judgement – we lack God’s foreknowledge.
Based on the plausibility and high explanatory power of the resurrection hypothesis, compared to the alternatives, I believe it is quite evident that the resurrection is the best explanation for the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, I would say that it so outweighs the other hypotheses in these aspects that, not only is it more probable (given the evidence) than any individual alternative, but it is more probable than the disjunction of all the alternatives.
(The argument for my last statement would go as follows. I have demonstrated in my last two posts that there are a finite number of alternative explanations besides the resurrection, all of which have very low plausibility or very low explanatory power, or both, and that the resurrection hypothesis has at least reasonable plausibility and very high explanatory power. Thus, a Bayesian analysis will show that the posterior probabilities of the alternatives are all very low, leaving the lion’s share of the posterior probability space to the resurrection hypothesis.)
You might disagree with that – admittedly, there is some level of subjectivity in these kind of judgements. But the evidence for the resurrection is certainly powerful enough that we can be rationally justified in believing it, on the basis of inference to the best explanation.
So what does it mean if the resurrection hypothesis is true – if Jesus of Nazareth was raised from death as his disciples proclaimed? It means that God has acted in history. It means that the God who is revealed in his creation has also revealed himself to ancient Israel as Yahweh, and now to the world through his unique Son, Jesus. And since Jesus’ disciples learned from him on earth both before and after his resurrection, and were commissioned by him to proclaim his message, it means that some form of Christianity is almost certainly true.
That concludes my exploration of the arguments for God’s existence. In the next section of my blog, I will be exploring the arguments against God’s existence. I feel that at least some of these do carry weight, but I hope to show why I believe that there are adequate responses to them, so that ultimately the arguments against are not weighty enough to overturn the arguments for.
In my last post, I began exploring the different possibilities for how we might explain the evidence that we have about the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Evaluating the various alternatives, I argued for the conclusions that:
- the crucifixion and burial really happened,
- the tomb really was found empty on the third day, and
- the reports of the resurrection appearances cannot reasonably be explained by invention, lie, hallucination, or mistake – leaving the alternative that Jesus really was alive following his crucifixion.
Now I will explore the remaining possibilities for what happened in those days, continuing from my last post.
Alternatives: The Fate of the Body
(5) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 5.1.1 or 5.1.2:
(5.1.1) After the crucifixion, the body thought to be of Jesus was not placed in a generally known location (where by generally known, I mean known to at least some of Jesus’ followers and at least some members of the Jerusalem community). (Unburied)
(5.1.2) After the crucifixion, said body was placed in a generally known location, in which case either 5.2.1 or 5.2.2:
(5.2.1) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, the body was still where it had been buried. (Remained Buried)
(5.2.2) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, the body was not still where it had been buried, in which case either 5.3.1 or 5.3.2:
(5.3.1) The body was alive (and so either moved under its own power or with assistance of someone or something else). (Alive Post-Crucifixion)
(5.3.2) The body was dead (and so someone or something else moved it), in which case either 5.4.1 or 5.4.2:
(5.4.1) The body was moved by supernatural forces or entities. (Supernatural Mischief)
(5.4.2) The body was moved by natural forces or entities, in which case either 5.5.1 or 5.5.2:
(5.5.1) Non-human natural forces or entities moved the body (animals, an earthquake, etc.). (Natural Forces)
(5.5.2) Humans moved the body, either 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, or 188.8.131.52:
(184.108.40.206) Friends of Jesus moved the body. (Friendly Theft)
(220.127.116.11) Enemies of Jesus moved the body. (Hostile Theft)
(18.104.22.168) Neutral third-parties moved the body. (Third-Party Theft)
This set of alternatives is about what happened to the body that was crucified, in order to explain the reports of the empty tomb. I have phrased things to leave open the slight possibility (which I will consider with the next set of alternatives) that Jesus somehow escaped from the crucifixion, meaning, since a crucifixion definitely happened, that someone else was crucified in his place. But whether it was Jesus or just someone thought to be Jesus who was crucified, the body still needs to be accounted for.
The hypotheses that the body was not buried in a generally known location (may it was thrown in a common grave by the Roman soldiers, and nobody noticed where they had so disposed it), or that the body remained where it had been buried, fail to explain the evidence that we have for the historicity of the burial and empty tomb accounts. So we can reject them as already ruled out by the evidence:
(5.6) 5.1.1 and 5.2.1 are false.
The hypothesis that the body was alive leads to the more interesting question of how that happened, so I’ll just note for the next set of alternatives that the explanations for how the body could be alive also need to explain how the body got out of the tomb, if it was indeed placed there. For this set, the alternatives for how the dead body could have been removed from the tomb remain to be evaluated.
Natural Forces Hypothesis
The possibility that something like an earthquake or wild animals moved the body is made implausible by details of the burial account. Since we have good evidence for the historicity of the burial account, we can reasonably accept that Jesus (or the body thought to be Jesus) was placed in a tomb cut out of the rock, which was then sealed with a large stone rolled over the entrance. These details are corroborated by all the Gospel accounts.
But this means that wild animals could not have gotten into the tomb to move the body; any kind of wind or surge of water from a storm would not have affected it either, and an earthquake that successfully moved the body (maybe by burying it under a pile of broken rocks, or swallowing it into a crack in the earth) would have resulted in some level of destruction to the tomb as well.
But there is no evidence that the tomb was destroyed like this. And if it had been destroyed, the empty tomb accounts would have almost certainly reflected this. (That is, supposing a giant crack in the ground wouldn’t instead have produced the belief that God was confirming his curse against Jesus by taking his dead body right down to Sheol.)
The hypothesis that aliens moved the body would also fall under this alternative, but we can easily reject that possibility as implausible and ad-hoc. We have no good reason to think that aliens exist, or that it would be feasible for them to travel to our planet and so subtly interfere in human affairs even if they did exist, or that they would have any motive to do so if they could.
Thus, we can reject 5.5.1.
Theories that someone moved the body after it had been buried, which I’ve called “theft” hypotheses after the classic objection that the disciples stole the body, are similarly implausible in light of the evidence.
The possibility that the disciples stole the body is part of one of the oldest alternative explanations for the resurrection evidences: the conspiracy hypothesis. It requires that the disciples lied about the resurrection and the reason for the empty tomb, since one or more of them knew that the whole thing was false. (And if it was not all of them, it fails to explain the resurrection appearances as well.) So it faces all the weaknesses of the false testimony hypothesis that I discussed in my last post. In particular, it is entirely ad-hoc to suggest that the disciples had any motive to do this, and it is implausible that they would go on to willingly face suffering and death for the lie.
This hypothesis faces even further difficulty, of course, if Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb is historical, for then the disciples would have needed both to get past the guard and to roll away the stone in order to move the body.
Similarly, enemies of Jesus would have had no motive to move his body after he was dead: by that point, he had been dealt with. As for neutral third-parties: if, for example, graverobbers had thought that a rich man was buried in the tomb instead of Jesus, they might have gone through the bother of rolling the stone away (assuming the guard didn’t pose a problem), but finding only the body of a crucified man, they would have just left it there.
Oh, here’s a novel suggestion! Graverobbers rolled the stone away on Friday night, found nothing of value and left the body there; then wild animals came and dragged the body away; then an earthquake rolled the stone back over the entrance; and then the guards didn’t bother to check if there was still a body there when they arrived Saturday morning. Oh, and them someone rolled the stone away again so that the women could discover the empty tomb on Sunday. And then, presumably, the disciples had coherent and detailed mass hallucinations which convinced them, not that they were seeing visions, but that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
(That is what we call a fantastic, ad-hoc hypothesis.)
The other suggestion for a neutral third-party who might have moved the body is none other than Joseph of Arimathea. This theory postulates that Joseph did not actually care about Jesus, but only placed him in his family tomb because it was close by and time was short before the beginning of the Sabbath. But then he moved the body to a common graveyard later, since the criminal was unworthy to be buried in his tomb.
This hypothesis is fairly deficient. It ignores the evidence that we do have for Joseph’s motives, and postulates different motives for which we have no evidence. The time frame is difficult: since the women discovered the empty tomb early in the morning on Sunday, Joseph would have had to move the body as soon as he possibly could after the Sabbath for this explanation to work. If he despised having Jesus in his tomb so much that he took the earliest opportunity to move him, why bury him there in the first place? Did he also bury, and then move, the two criminals crucified with Jesus? This is all the more implausible since we have evidence that Jewish custom prohibited moving a body once it was buried.
But the greatest deficiency of this hypothesis is that it implies Joseph and his servants knew where the body of Jesus was located after it was moved. Which means that unless Joseph (and others who had helped him move the body) suddenly died before Pentecost, the disciples would not have been able to successfully preach the resurrection. Joseph, not a friend of Jesus in this scenario, would have simply corrected them by pointing out that he had moved the body. It doesn’t matter if the body was decomposed and unrecognizable by that point: it would have been the word of an influential member of society against the word of some country bumpkins.
So 5.5.2 is an implausible alternative as well.
Supernatural Mischief Hypothesis
Finally, we have to consider the possibility that some supernatural entity or force removed the dead body from the tomb (without actually raising that body from the dead). This faces the same difficulty as the theory that a supernatural power gave the disciples visions of Jesus: we have no reason to think that there are any supernatural powers who would have a motive to remove the body. If the power is not Yahweh, it is completely out of the blue. If the power is Yahweh, he either would have no reason to deceive the disciples (if Jesus was not who he said he was), or he would have no reason to skip the actual resurrection (if Jesus was who he said he was).
So there is really no reason to believe that 5.4.1 is true, and it seems unlikely in the absence of a coherent motive to attribute to the supposed supernatural entity.
Therefore, all of the alternatives aside from 5.3.1 are either highly implausible, or they fail to explain the evidence that we have for the empty tomb, or both. Assuming that the remaining alternative does not suffer from those defects, I think we can rationally claim:
(5.7) 5.4.1, 5.5.1, and 5.5.2 are false.
Which means that the man that was placed in the tomb was later found alive – and either had assistance leaving the tomb or was able to do so under his own power.
Alternatives: The Fate of Jesus
(6) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 6.1.1 or 6.1.2:
(6.1.1) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was dead. (Dead)
(6.1.2) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was alive, in which case either 6.2.1 or 6.2.2:
(6.2.1) Jesus had not been crucified (and so someone else had been crucified in his place). (Escape)
(6.2.2) Jesus had been crucified, in which case either 6.3.1 or 6.3.2:
(6.3.1) Jesus survived the crucifixion, either 22.214.171.124 or 126.96.36.199:
(188.8.131.52) He survived by somehow faking the crucifixion. (Fake Crucifixion)
(184.108.40.206) He survived by suffering the actual crucifixion but not dying. (Swoon)
(6.3.2) Jesus died from the crucifixion, in which case either 6.4.1 or 6.4.2:
(6.4.1) Jesus resurrected naturally. (Scientific Anomaly)
(6.4.2) Jesus resurrected supernaturally, in which case either 6.5.1 or 6.5.2:
(6.5.1) Some supernatural forces or entities other than Yahweh raised Jesus. (Supernatural Mischief)
(6.5.2) Yahweh raised Jesus. (Resurrection)
Normally, the hypothesis that Jesus was dead following the crucifixion would be by far the most plausible. The problem is that this leaves the resurrection appearances nearly inexplicable: as I’ve argued, all the other theories trying to explain the appearances (invention, false testimony, hallucination, mistake) are highly implausible and lack explanatory power. Unless the same is true of all the alternatives in which Jesus is found alive, it is rational (by inference to the best explanation) to claim:
(6.6) 6.1.1 is false.
Now I will explore the hypotheses in which Jesus is alive following the crucifixion.
Under this hypothesis Jesus somehow escaped from being crucified. But since a crucifixion did occur, this implies that someone else was crucified in his place. Barabbas is occasionally hypothesized as the actual victim, under the suggestion that Pilate or his soldiers got them confused. This, I believe, is quite improbable: it implies that Barabbas and Jesus looked similar enough to be easily confused, and that no one noticed that the wrong person had been released and the wrong person was being scourged and crucified.
(Admittedly the disfigurement from the pre-crucifixion abuse would have made recognizing Jesus more difficult – but don’t you think, even before it began, Barabbas would have been saying, “Wait! Pilate said to release me! I’m not Jesus, I’m the other guy!” And wouldn’t a brief examination have revealed the truth at that point?)
That is basically the best-case scenario for this hypothesis: any other version of it begins to look like a conspiracy theory where Pilate or some of the Roman soldiers carrying out the crucifixion happened to be secretly in league with Jesus, and helped him escape the crucifixion for inscrutable reasons. (Crucifying some poor random soul in the process.) And then it has to be the case that no one ever found out about what really happened.
Moreover, this hypothesis fails to fully explain the evidence. For the resurrection appearances, to completely convince the disciples, Jesus would have needed to fake the crucifixion wounds and pull off the miraculous aspects of the appearances – such as the ascension. (And if Jesus was a mere man and had successfully deceived his disciples of his resurrection, why didn’t he stay and become the political messiah the Jews were expecting?)
As for the empty tomb, the body of whoever was crucified and buried in Jesus’ place still had to be removed. This is a particularly salient difficulty with the escape hypothesis.
Thus, we can reject alternative 6.2.1 as implausible and explanatorily weak.
Fake Crucifixion Hypothesis
I’ve sometimes seen the conjecture that Jesus was some kind of master street magician, as a way to explain his reported miracles, and this gets extended to the hypothesis that the crucifixion was his greatest trick. This is even more implausible than the escape hypothesis, since it basically guarantees that the Roman soldiers were in on the trick. Deceptions like that require preparation and controlled conditions, and can’t have people looking too closely in the wrong places. And this hypothesis faces all the same explanatory difficulties as the escape hypothesis, at least regarding the resurrection appearances. (Since this is already a conspiracy hypothesis involving Roman soldiers, we can at least grant that this hypothesis has sufficient explanatory power regarding the empty tomb, though it certainly is lacking in plausibility.)
So 220.127.116.11 is almost certainly false.
This is the old theory that Jesus never died on the cross – he just passed out. And then he survived being stabbed with a spear, woke up inside a sealed tomb in agony with severe wounds, including injuries to his feet which would have made it almost impossible to walk. And then he still managed to escape the tomb, present himself disfigured and gasping before the disciples, and convince them, not that he had survived and was badly in need of medical attention, but that he was the glorious conqueror of death itself.
Basically, the hypothesis of surviving the crucifixion is ridiculous. It is just not a medical possibility. We have one account of someone surviving a crucifixion, and that is only because they were taken down prematurely and given the best medical attention available (and in the same account, two others who were also taken down and treated still died). The Roman soldiers could be relied upon to do their job correctly, and indeed, the crucifixion accounts record that Jesus was speared to verify that he was dead.
So the probability of survival is basically zero, and even if Jesus had survived, he wouldn’t have been able to get out of the tomb. And even if he had escaped the tomb, his appearance would not have elicited the disciples’ belief in a resurrection to immortality. If someone helped him leave the tomb and patched him up first, we have an ad-hoc conspiracy hypothesis on our hands.
And therefore, 18.104.22.168 is false as well.
Scientific Anomaly Hypothesis
This is the hypothesis that Jesus came back to life through purely natural causes. But dead men do not naturally come back to life – certainly not without intervention, given what we know about the laws of nature, and dubious even if we begin wildly speculating about Jesus having access to alien nanotechnology, or something. So we can reject 6.4.1 with ease.
Supernatural Mischief Hypothesis
The above alternatives exhaust the naturalistic explanations for the events surrounding the death of Jesus. Thus, we have to turn to supernatural explanations. This hypothesis, 6.5.1, is that Jesus was raised from the dead by some supernatural force or entity other than Yahweh, the God of Israel, with whom Jesus claimed a unique relationship.
The difficulty with this hypothesis, as we have already seen, is that it is ad-hoc. Since the only supernatural being in the religious context of this event is Yahweh, we have no reason to ascribe a motive for raising Jesus to any other purported entity. (Well, you could argue that Satan, Yahweh’s enemy, is part of the religious context as well: but there doesn’t seem to be any good motive for a being playing that role to raise Jesus, either.)
You could hypothesize that this is literally the work of a trickster deity, something like Loki. But in that case the supposed “trick” is not all that, well, tricksy. Instead of resulting in a great joke, it spawned a religion that millions of people believe provides the most coherent and comprehensive worldview for explaining reality, a religion that has benefited society in many ways. (See the series of episodes starting here on the Communio Sanctorum podcast for examples of how Christianity has been a positive influence on the world.) So it does not actually seem like something a trickster god would do.
At this point, it is relevant to note that in that culture and context, miracles were conceived of as signs, authenticating the message of the one who performed the miracle. (And in fact, miracles are commonly called “signs” in the New Testament.) They were thought of as indications of divine power, and divinities were beings that you wanted to listen to. In the Gospels, Jesus himself teaches that his miracles and resurrection authenticated his identity and message (Mark 2:1-12, Matthew 11:1-5, Matthew 12:38-42). The early Christians took the resurrection to do exactly that (Acts 17:31, for example).
Since this is the way that miracles were conceptualized, this is what Jesus’ resurrection would have communicated to the people in that context: that Jesus was who he said he was, and that the message he preached was true. It is pretty reasonable to suppose that any supernatural being in a position to perform the resurrection would have known that, and so would only have performed the resurrection if they wanted to affirm Jesus’ message.
Therefore, it really only makes sense for a supernatural power to raise Jesus from the dead if that power was affirming Jesus’ message, and therefore appropriating the identity that Jesus claimed a unique relationship with: the identity of Yahweh.
Given the evaluations of the above alternatives, I think it is quite reasonable to claim:
(6.7) 6.2.1, 6.3.1, 6.4.1, and 6.5.1 are false.
And this means that the historical evidence for the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth points, rather strongly, to the explanation that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead.
Now, this does not prove that conclusion. And that’s because I think premises 4.5 (which implies 6.6), 5.7, and 6.7 are rational to assert only if the final alternative 6.5.2 (which implies 4.4.2 and 5.3.1) has a sufficient combination of explanatory power and plausibility to outweigh the other options. (And that is because what I am doing here is essentially an abductive argument, not a deductive argument.)
Note: to a lesser extent, this is also true of premises 1.3 (which satisfies the condition on the first statement of the remaining syllogisms), 2.3 (which implies part of 5.6), and 3.5 (which implies 5.6); and that 6.5.2 is taken to also imply 1.2.2, 2.2.2, and 3.4.2. But I find those first three premises completely rational to assert in light of the historical evidence, no matter how we evaluate 6.5.2.
In my next post, I’ll argue that 6.5.2, the resurrection hypothesis, is reasonably plausible and has high explanatory power for the evidence, so that (given the failure of the alternatives) we are justified in believing it.
In my last few posts, I have been exploring the evidence for the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century of the common era. With this post, I want to explore how these facts can be explained. My goal here is to be logically comprehensive, so that I do not miss any possible explanations. (My method here is inspired by this essay from Andrew Loke.)
Towards that goal, I will divide the space of possibilities into a few mutually exclusive and exhaustive alternatives along six different (though somewhat interdependent) axes. Then I will look to the evidence to rule out various alternatives as highly improbable, based on their level of plausibility and power to explain the evidence, so that it is reasonable to believe that they are false. If successful, this will leave only one viable alternative in each category.
Alternatives: The Crucifixion
(1) Either 1.1.1 or 1.1.2:
(1.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. In this case, the records that we have of such an event are later inventions. (Crucifixion Invention)
(1.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such a crucifixion, in which case either 1.2.1 or 1.2.2:
(1.2.1) All such reports were lies or the result of unveridical experiences. (Crucifixion Mass Delusion)
(1.2.2) There was at least one genuine, veridical eyewitness report of a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea – in which case there was such a crucifixion. (Historical Crucifixion)
The evidence that I cited earlier – multiple early sources for the crucifixion, the implausibility of it being an invention because of the great shame associated with crucifixion, the lack of any evidence for an original “mythical” version of Christianity – is sufficient to make 1.1.1 almost certainly false. And at the same time, it would strain credulity far beyond the breaking point to assume that the entire population of Jerusalem at the time ended up deceived or deluded into thinking that a certain crucifixion happened when it did not. (The crucifixion is supposed to be a public spectacle, and it occurred at Passover, a highly memorable occasion. It would have been witnessed by hundreds, if not thousands of people.) So 1.2.1 is also highly implausible.
Therefore, it is entirely rational to assert:
(1.3) 1.1.1 and 1.2.1 are false.
Which means that we can conclude that the crucifixion of Jesus was a historical event.
Alternatives: The Burial
(2) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 2.1.1 or 2.1.2:
(2.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of the burial of the body thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth following his crucifixion. In this case, the records that we have of such an event are later inventions. (Burial Invention)
(2.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such a burial, in which case either 2.2.1 or 2.2.2:
(2.2.1) All such reports were lies or the result of unveridical experiences. (Burial Delusion)
(2.2.2) There was at least one genuine, veridical eyewitness report of the burial of the man thought to be Jesus of Nazareth following his crucifixion – in which case there was such a burial. (Historical Burial)
Again, the evidence that I reviewed earlier – multiple early sources for the burial, the implausibility that certain details of the account (Joseph of Arimathea) would be invented, the lack of any report to the contrary – is sufficient to make it extremely likely that 2.1.1 is false. And it is even more unbelievable that all the original accounts of the burial were deluded – how would that have even happened? – making it extremely likely that 2.2.1 is false as well.
Therefore, we can assert:
(2.3) 2.1.1 and 2.2.1 are false.
Which means that the burial of Jesus is also a historical event.
Alternatives: The Empty Tomb
(3) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 3.1.1 or 3.1.2:
(3.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of the discovery of the empty tomb on the first day of the week following the crucifixion. In this case, the records that we have of such a discovery are later inventions. (Empty Tomb Invention)
(3.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such a discovery, in which case either 3.2.1 or 3.2.2:
(3.2.1) All such reports were lies. (Empty Tomb False Testimony)
(3.2.2) At least one such report was genuine, in which case 3.3.1 or 3.3.2:
(3.3.1) All such genuine reports were the result of intra-mental experiences. (Empty Tomb Hallucination)
(3.3.2) At least one such report was the result of an extra-mental experience, in which case either 3.4.1 or 3.4.2:
(3.4.1) No such extra-mental experiences correctly identified the tomb as empty. (Empty Tomb Mistaken)
(3.4.2) At least one such experience correctly identified the tomb as empty – in which case the body thought to be of Jesus was buried following the crucifixion, but did not remain where it was buried. (Historical Empty Tomb)
The evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb account – the dependence of the origin of Christianity on the empty tomb, the early well-established sources for the empty tomb account, the testimony of the women, and the Jewish polemic against the resurrection – gives us strong reason to reject 3.1.1.
The other non-traditional alternatives, 3.2.1, 3.3.1, and 3.4.1, are also fairly easy to dismiss. If the original reports of the empty tomb were lies, or if they were the result of hallucinations or mistakes (for example, the women went to the wrong tomb early in the morning), it would have been easy enough to go and check the tomb to see if those claims were true (which is exactly what the Gospels show the disciples doing). In which case, unless the tomb really was empty, the whole story would have immediately fallen apart.
In order for these alternatives viable, the location of the burial cannot be known, which means that the historicity of the burial account has to be denied. But, as we’ve seen, there is strong evidence for the burial account. And even if that is granted, these alternatives still lack explanatory power. Without the possibility of verification, it is far more likely that the lie would have been found out, or the hallucination or mistake would have been quickly recognized for what it was, than it is that the story would have gotten off the ground.
On top of that, these alternatives are intrinsically implausible: there would have been no motive to lie about the empty tomb, the chance of hallucinating it is miniscule (especially considering that it was a group of women who discovered it, not an individual), and the probability of going to the wrong tomb or having some other kind of mix-up is still relatively small.
So we can very reasonably claim:
(3.5) 3.1.1, 3.2.1, 3.3.1, and 3.4.1 are false.
From which we can conclude that Jesus’ body (or at the very least, the body that was thought to be Jesus) was entombed following the crucifixion, but didn’t stay there.
Alternatives: The Resurrection Appearances
(4) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 4.1.1 or 4.1.2:
(4.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of resurrection appearances following the crucifixion. In this case, the records that we have of such appearances are later inventions. (Invention)
(4.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such appearances, in which case either 4.2.1 or 4.2.2:
(4.2.1) All such reports were lies. (False Testimony)
(4.2.2) At least one such report was genuine, in which case 4.3.1 or 4.3.2:
(4.3.1) All such genuine reports were the result of intra-mental experiences, either 22.214.171.124 or 126.96.36.199:
(188.8.131.52) Naturally occurring intra-mental experiences. (Hallucinations)
(184.108.40.206) Supernaturally occurring intra-mental experiences. (Supernatural Visions)
(4.3.2) At least one such report was the result of an extra-mental experience, in which case either 4.4.1 or 4.4.2:
(4.4.1) No such extra-mental experiences correctly identified Jesus as alive following the crucifixion. (Mistaken Identity)
(4.4.2) At least one such experience correctly identified Jesus alive following the crucifixion. (Alive Post-Crucifixion)
The evidence that I have gathered for the historicity of the resurrection appearances – the testimony of Paul, oral and written tradition from the early Christian movement, and the very origin of the belief in the resurrection – strongly disfavours the alternative 4.1.1. But there is some more we can say on that subject.
All the evidence points to the belief in Jesus’ resurrection appearing very early: it is attested in the creed preserved in 1 Corinthians 15, dated to within five years after the crucifixion. This can only be explained if it is something that was believed by the original disciples of Jesus, since they were certainly still around at that time.
But the original disciples were Jews, and so were not disposed towards the idea of the resurrection that they claimed for Jesus: which was not just a return to mortal life, but a resurrection to glory and immortality. Jews only believed that such a resurrection would occur to the righteous followers of God at the end of history. We can see this in the way that Jesus’ followers reacted to some of his statements:
- When Jesus was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Martha believed Jesus was talking about Lazarus’ end times resurrection. (John 11:23-24)
- When Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection, his disciples ask about something that was thought of as an eschatological event – Elijah coming to announce the Day of Yahweh, from a prophecy of Isaiah. (Mark 9:9-11)
There was no belief in Judaism of the messiah’s death and resurrection, nor was there any belief linking the general resurrection of believers in the end times to the specific resurrection of the messiah in the middle of history. So the disciples did not get the idea of Jesus’ resurrection from Judaism.
And they did not get this idea from pagan myths, either, despite the kind of claims made by Jesus mythicists. There are no actual parallels to the resurrection of Jesus in pagan mythology – the supposed parallels are so weak, it is really laughable – and there is no plausible influence from pagan mythology onto the ideas of early first century Jews, anyways. (William Lane Craig mentions that scholars have actually come to doubt that there are any myths of dying and rising gods!)
So the invention hypothesis can be rejected. The origin of Christianity cannot be explained without the disciples claiming to have seen Jesus resurrected.
False Testimony Hypothesis
This is the hypothesis that the disciples lied about witnessing the risen Jesus. This is literally a conspiracy theory, and so is highly ad-hoc. It has to postulate motives and ideas for the disciples for which there is absolutely no evidence, in contradiction to the most plausible frame of mind that they would have been in following Jesus’ crucifixion: one of dejection and defeat, or even fear.
In real life conspiracies like this are highly unstable. It just takes one member of the conspiracy to desist and admit to the lie, and the whole thing falls apart. But that never happened in this case: we have no evidence that anyone who claimed to witness the resurrection ever recanted that claim. (And there were as many as 500 such witnesses, according to the apostle Paul.) Given the historical evidence, we cannot reasonably deny that the disciples genuinely believed in the resurrection: they staked their very lives on this claim, and their lives were radically transformed.
There is a difference between willing to die for an ideology, and being willing to die to attest to an empirical fact. (I think that line comes from Tim and Lydia McGrew’s article on the resurrection from The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.) The disciples were not just convinced of an ideology, though even if that were the case, how they became convinced of that ideology would have to be explained. All the evidence indicates they were convinced that they had personally witnessed Jesus resurrected.
So the false testimony hypothesis is really implausible. The disciples had no reason to think that they had anything to gain by lying and inventing the resurrection – Jesus had just been crucified! Continuing to promote him as the messiah and the Son of God could only have gotten them in trouble with the authorities who had killed him. It is completely fantastic to suggest that the idea of such a conspiracy would have occurred to them, or that they would have been successful in carrying it out.
So we can dismiss 4.2.1 as the explanation for the resurrection appearances.
The hypothesis that the belief in the resurrection was the result of hallucinations among the disciples is also extremely implausible.
There is no evidence that the disciples were in a frame of mind susceptible to hallucinations. Hypotheses, for example, that Peter and Paul were both wracked with guilt (Peter for having denied Christ, Paul because of inability to perfectly keep the Mosaic law) depend on controversial psychological theories in the vein of Freud and Jung. It is not really possible to conduct that kind of psychoanalysis on historical figures, anyways.
The least incredible hallucination hypotheses suggest that the experiences of the disciples were all like the experience of the apostle Paul, rather than the physical, bodily appearances described in the Gospel accounts. But that really fails to explain the belief in the resurrection and the origin of those bodily appearance narratives. What the disciples were most likely to believe from such visions, given the background of their Jewish beliefs, was that Jesus’ spirit had been assumed into heaven rather than being physically raised from the dead. Only definite experiences that Jesus had a real, solid body would have convinced them of the resurrection.
The resurrection appearances are unprecedented, not comparable to any kind of hallucinatory experience: comprised of convincing experiences of physicality, coherent appearances to groups, occurring on multiple occasions over a 40 day period in time, and happening not just to Jesus’ followers but to unbelievers as well. Nothing else parallels them.
Some skeptics have appealed to examples of bereavement visions, where a grieving person hallucinates the deceased loved one that they are grieving over. But almost universally (except in cases of mental illness, which we have no indication of for any of the disciples, much less all of them) the bereaved do not come to believe from such visions that the deceased person has come back to life. Rather, they recognize the hallucination for what it is.
So the hypothesis that belief in the resurrection originated from hallucinations is really so improbable that we could probably be justified in calling it a miracle if that is what actually occurred – that is, we are rationally justified in asserting that such a thing is just too improbable to occur naturalistically.
Supernatural Visions Hypothesis
Which takes us to the corresponding theory that such visions of Jesus occurred supernaturally: some supernatural power caused the disciples to have these experiences intra-mentally. If the power behind this event is not Yahweh, the God of Israel, this hypothesis is entirely ad-hoc: no other supernatural being is part of the religious context in this event, and we have no reason to think that other supernatural beings would have a motive to give the disciples these visions, if they existed. And the hypothesis is entirely improbable if the power is Yahweh, who would either have no reason to inflict the disciples with such a deception (if Jesus was not who he said he was) or no reason to skip the actual resurrection (if Jesus was who he said he was).
Therefore, I believe we are rationally justified in rejecting alternative 4.3.1 in both its forms.
Mistaken Identity Hypothesis
Finally, we can also rule out alternative 4.4.1, the hypothesis that the disciples came to believe in the resurrection because they mistook someone else for Jesus.
On it’s own, this theory is about as ad-hoc and implausible as they come: it postulates that someone decided to pretend to be Jesus, who was hated by the Jewish elites and had just been crucified by the Roman authorities, in order to deceive the disciples into thinking that Jesus had been raised from the dead (or that they accomplished this accidentally, and then didn’t bother to correct the disciples’ mistake). The motivation for doing such a thing is completely inscrutable – once again, there was no expectation in Judaism of a resurrected messiah, so it is anachronistic to suggest that this would have been a natural idea.
Furthermore, in order to actually convince the disciples, this person would have had to be very similar to Jesus in appearance – some skeptics have hypothesized a twin brother! – would have had to fake the crucifixion wounds, and would have had to somehow perform the miraculous aspects of the resurrection appearances, not to mention the ascension!
(The fact that corrective lenses did not exist back then, so that poor eyesight was more common, does not in my estimation increase the plausibility of the mistaken identity hypothesis. Not everyone needs corrective lenses, even back then; it’s highly likely that at least some of the disciples would have been able to tell whether it was Jesus or not.)
So the plausibility and explanatory power of this alternative are extremely low. The best bet for this hypothesis (and for all the naturalistic explanations of the resurrection appearances, really) is that some combination of factors was at play.
What if some of the disciples had experiences of mistaken identity, maybe some of them had hallucinations, and these things brought about the belief in the resurrection and were eventually embellished into the resurrection appearances that we have in the Gospel accounts? A combination of factors like this is probably the best naturalistic explanation for the origin of Christianity, in my opinion. It is not without its problems, however.
- The required confluence of multiple factors like this quickly becomes improbable, especially considering that the empty tomb still needs to be explained.
- There is no good evidence for the hypothesized embellishment of the accounts. (To really establish this point I would need to go into more detail on the historical reliability of the Gospels, which I unfortunately don’t have time to do here.)
- Any proposed combination of events that is not highly improbable seems to me that it would not be powerful enough to produce the conviction in the resurrection that the disciples had.
So this hypothesis (which, given the way I’ve structured the alternatives, falls under 4.4.1 as long as some element of mistaken identity is present) still does not have that much plausibility, for me.
Given the above evaluations, one can propose:
(4.5) 4.1.1, 4.2.1, 4.3.1, and 4.4.1 are false.
And therefore we can conclude the remaining alternative – that Jesus was alive following his crucifixion – is true. I believe this is rational to affirm as long as said alternative has sufficient explanatory power for the evidence, relative to the other options (sufficient to overcome any intrinsic implausibility that it might have).
As incredible as it seems, that is what I believe is the case. I’ll continue exploring my reasons why in the next post.
The evidence that I have been exploring in the last few posts is strong enough, I believe, that we can be reasonably certain of these historical facts:
- Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried in a tomb.
- His tomb was found empty on the third day following his crucifixion.
- Afterwards, people witnessed appearances they held to be of Jesus resurrected.
- Among those who witnessed such appearances were Paul and James, neither of them very friendly to Jesus or his movement prior to having those experiences.
- His disciples came to firmly believe in his resurrection, and thus, the Christian faith began.
In this post, I want to explore some of the context in which these events occurred.
In addition to accepting that Jesus existed and that he was crucified, many contemporary scholars agree on the following sketch of Jesus’ life:
- He began his ministry after being baptized by John the Baptist.
- He gathered followers and ministered in the region of Galilee and Judea.
- He spoke about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and preached a radical moral ethic of loving even one’s enemies. Sometimes he taught using parables.
- He was recognized as a miracle worker and an exorcist (something which is attested by all of the Gospel sources).
But one of the most interesting things about Jesus is how he thought of himself. He claimed to have a unique relationship to Yahweh, the God of Israel, worshipped by the Jews as the only true God and the creator of all things – such that his claims were perceived as blasphemy by the Jewish religious authorities. The Gospel accounts and the apostolic sermons in Acts all agree that Jesus’ death, by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, was instigated by the Jewish religious elites because of his radical claims, and his actions in line with these claims.
This is best illustrated in Mark 14:61-64, where Jesus, after having been arrested by the temple police, is interrogated by the high priest. The high priest asks him if he is the Messiah and the Son of God. And Jesus responds:
“I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven.” – Jesus of Nazareth
With this short response, Jesus claimed:
- To be the long-awaited messiah of Israel.
- To be the Son of God.
- To be the Son of Man.
- That he would even be seated at the right hand of God.
And at this, the high priest immediately declared that Jesus committed blasphemy and deserved death. Both the claim to be the Son of God and to be the Son of Man would have been perceived as blasphemous, as I will look at further momentarily. But the claim to be seated at God’s right hand – to share God’s throne, symbolizing the authority of God himself – is understood by scholars such as N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, and Darrell Bock as being the most audacious claim here.
The synoptic Gospels all narrate this event, and it provides a clear and coherent explanation for Jesus’ death: incensed by this blasphemy, the Jewish religious elites prompted the Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, to have Jesus crucified. (The alternative explanation that is sometimes offered, that the Romans took the initiative to execute Jesus, is not substantiated by ancient sources and lacks motivation: it does not seem like Jesus was that much of a threat to Roman rule during his lifetime.) So we can reasonably take this event as historical.
Son of God
To see further what Jesus meant by his claim to be the Son of God, we can look at Mark 13:32. The majority of scholars accept this saying of Jesus as historical, since it is unlikely to have been invented by early Christians: in it, Jesus admits to not knowing the time of his eschatological return, something that is hard to square with the belief in the divinity of Jesus.
In this verse, Jesus utilizes an ascending scale of claims. No man knows the time of his return; not even the angels know; not even the Son knows: only the Father knows. So here Jesus claims to be the Son, and calls God his Father, and places the Son above humans and angels and just below the Father in this series. There is a clear implication that the Son is someone greater than angels.
In Mark 14:36, Jesus refers to God as “Abba,” a personal, familiar title for one’s father. Moreover, we can look at Matthew 11:27, which contains a saying found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark; indicating it comes from an early source independent of Mark. In it, Jesus claims unique and exclusive knowledge of and access to God. Therefore, we have multiple sources indicating that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of God, and claimed a highly unique relationship with God.
Son of Man
As for Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man: this is actually Jesus’ preferred title for himself, as it is attested by all Gospel sources. The Gospel writers were highly unlikely to have invented Jesus’ pervasive use of the title, since outside of the Gospels and one instance in Acts, Jesus is never called the Son of Man in the early Christian writings preserved in the New Testament. And the Jews never referred to Jesus in this way. So his use of this title for himself is almost certainly historical.
The reason this title is significant is that, in Mark 14:61-64, it very clearly alludes to a figure from a prophetic vision in the Old Testament. In the book named after him, Daniel says:
“I saw, in the night, visions, and behold: with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and tongues should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” – Daniel 7:13-14
This figure in the prophetic vision is called “one like a son of man,” is described as coming on the clouds of heaven, and receives authority from God over all the earth. The phrase “coming on the clouds” is only ever used of Yahweh himself elsewhere in the Old Testament, and therefore has strong connotations of divinity.
In Jewish literature produced in the Second Temple period, such as in 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, this Son of Man is illuminated further as a figure who shares God’s throne and accepts worship (a prerogative belonging only to God, in Jewish thinking). In fact, there was great speculation about who this divine “second power in heaven” could be. (Was it Melchizedek? The archangel Michael? The special Angel of Yahweh who appears in various places in the Old Testament?) In calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus made claim to being that second power: the right hand of God himself.
In light of the above, we have good evidence that Jesus thought of himself as uniquely related to God, and we can add that to the list of historical facts at the beginning of this post.
Now that we have assembled said historical facts, we have to account for them. In order to have a coherent and comprehensive worldview, we need to find out how these facts are to be explained. That is what I will begin to do next.
In my last post, I explored some of the specific evidence for the facts that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, that he was buried, and that on the first day of the week following his crucifixion, his tomb was found empty.
What happened after that is where it gets really interesting.
The Resurrection Appearances
We have a number of sources indicating that after Jesus died, his disciples claimed to have seen him alive again, risen from the dead. And not only did they make this claim, but they truly appear to have believed it. They were transformed from men who fearfully denied and abandoned their master at his arrest, to men who fearlessly preached his resurrection in the face of opposition and even the threat of death. This evidence indicates that the disciples really had experiences that they took to be appearances of Jesus resurrected.
Writing a letter to the Corinthian church about 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the apostle Paul lists a number of individuals and groups who experienced resurrection appearances (this list can be found in 1 Corinthians 15). It is almost universally accepted as historical by scholars that Paul knew at least some of the original disciples personally, as this is attested by Paul himself, by the book of Acts, and by other Christian writers in the first and early second centuries. So Paul is certainly in a position to accurately report what the disciples claimed.
What he reports is that he received the following teaching in the form of a creed:
“That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures;
That he was buried;
That he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures;
And that he appeared to Cephas, and to the Twelve.” – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
Historians generally date this creed to within five years following the Jesus’ death, understanding Paul as saying that he received this teaching from the apostles (including Peter, also called by his Aramaic name, Cephas) when he visited them three years following his conversion, a meeting which he recounts in his letter to the Galatians. Paul affirms that this is what the apostles were saying: that Jesus had appeared to them after being raised from the dead.
Paul adds several other resurrection appearances that he knew of to this creed: an appearance to over 500 of Jesus’ disciples at one time (speculated by some to be the appearance recorded in Matthew 28:16-17, though only the twelve are mentioned there); an appearance to James, the brother of Jesus; an appearance to all of the apostles (which apparently included more than just the twelve closest disciples, see for example Acts 1:21-22); and last of all an appearance to Paul himself. Paul explicitly notes that many of those who had seen Jesus after his resurrection were still alive at the time when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, and the intent of this comment is obvious: the witnesses were still available to be questioned.
The Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances provide multiple independent attestation to the fact that the disciples had such experiences. There are independent accounts in Matthew, Luke and Acts, and John; and a resurrection appearance is hinted at in the empty tomb account in Mark (and some scholars believe that the original ending of Mark has been lost, so it may have recounted the foreshadowed appearance). Moreover, the apostolic sermons in Acts reference the resurrection, and they are held by most historians to be summaries of what was preached by the apostles themselves, or at least by the early Christians generally.
Finally, we have the writings of the early church fathers who succeeded the apostles in leading the church. Clement and Polycarp, who are reported to have personally known and learned from the apostles Peter and John, respectively, also affirm that the original disciples reported resurrection appearances.
So we have a wealth of evidence from the earliest oral and written tradition of the Christian church that the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus raised from the dead. But we also have historical evidence that they genuinely believed these claims: their lives were transformed by these experiences. The Gospels report that the disciples abandoned Jesus at his arrest. Peter denied ever having known him. It is unlikely that the Gospel writers invented these shameful, embarrassing accounts of the disciples’ weakness, so we have reason to believe did in fact respond to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion in this fearful manner.
Yet in only a short while, these same men willingly exposed themselves to the risk of persecution, and even martyrdom, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ – and they were willing to suffer these things not for some vague religious hope, but for maintaining their testimonies of having personally seen their risen Lord. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, in their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, list seven ancient sources attesting to the disciples’ willingness to suffer for what they proclaimed: the book of Acts, Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen. (All these sources are from approximately the first 200 years following the crucifixion.)
So, that the disciples of Jesus were willing to suffer for their testimony is a very well-attested historical fact, and this is only reasonably explained by their genuine belief in this testimony. But that makes it almost completely certain that they really did have experiences which they took to be of the resurrected Jesus.
The Nature of the Appearances
It is important to remark on the nature of the resurrection appearances that the disciples experienced. First, they not only occurred to individuals, but also to groups of people. In fact, most of the reported experiences were to groups. There are multiple accounts of Jesus appearing to his twelve closest disciples; there is the appearance to the two disciples on the road the Emmaus, there is the reported appearance to the 500, and we have Jesus’ ascension witnessed by a group of disciples.
Second, the appearances occurred to all kinds of people. Jesus is reported to have appeared to both men and women, to his closest disciples and to those less central among his followers, and even to those skeptical or even downright hostile towards him (Thomas, his brother James, the persecutor Paul).
Third, the appearances were bodily and physical appearances. (With the one exception of the appearance to Paul, which occurred after Jesus’ ascension. Paul’s experience, however, does not undermine the bodily nature of the other appearances, for reasons explained in this link.) The Gospel accounts are unanimous on this, as are the writings of the early church fathers. Jesus demonstrated to his disciples that he was not some mere spirit, but that he had been raised with a physical body, capable of eating and drinking, capable of being touched, still bearing the wounds of the crucifixion. This point we can also reasonably take to be historical: if none of the experiences of the original disciples appeared to be physical in this way, it is inexplicable how all of the accounts of their experiences could have been corrupted by this fabrication in such a short time.
Note that the early creed cited above, along with the Jewish concept of resurrection as involving the physical body, supports the physicality of the appearances. It says that Jesus was buried and that he was raised: the reference to the burial would be irrelevant if the original disciples believed that the resurrection appearances were merely spiritual. Moreover, Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection is physical, and he links this to the resurrection of Christ (see for example Philippians 3:21).
Fourth, it is interesting to note that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus peculiarly arose among those who had no predisposition towards such a belief at all. The Jews had no conception of a messiah who would die shamefully on a cross: on the contrary, they believed such a death was a sure sign that the person had been cursed by God. They had no conception of a resurrection to eternal life in the middle of history, instead of occurring at the end of time. When other messianic claimants failed, their followers had simply dispersed. And yet, from the earliest times following his crucifixion, the disciples of Jesus came to believe that he had been raised from the dead and exalted by God.
The Conversion of Paul
The post-mortem appearances of Jesus are made particularly interesting by the fact that they were not only experienced by those who followed Jesus prior to his crucifixion – we also have at least two reports of Jesus appearing to someone who did not follow him during his earthly life. The most dramatic of these is the appearance to Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul.
Paul changed from being a devout adherent to Judaism who zealously persecuted the early Christian movement, into a fervent member of that same movement. He went from believing that Jesus of Nazareth was a blasphemer and cursed by God, to believing that Jesus really was the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah – preaching what he once condemned as heresy. This radical conversion is attributed to an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
We have Paul’s own testimony of his conversion recounted in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, Galatians 1:12-16, and Philippians 3:6-7. Early church fathers such as Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius quote these letters, attribute them to Paul, and attest to his accuracy, so we have reason to take these accounts as historical. There is a hint that there was a story of Paul’s conversion circulating in the early church in Galatians 1:22-23. And the book of Acts attests to his conversion in multiple passages.
Furthermore, we have multiple early sources indicating that Paul was willing to suffer persecution and death for his testimony and for his belief in Jesus, just as the original disciples were – showing that his conversion was genuine. This is reported by Paul himself, the book of Acts, Clement, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysus of Corinth, and Origen.
Both Paul and the books of Acts attribute Paul’s conversion to a resurrection appearance, which occurred when he was still an enemy of the Christian movement. Paul’s conversion is significant: it occurred not because Paul was drawn to the message of Christianity, but because Paul experienced something that he took to an appearance of the risen Jesus. Which means that Jesus’ resurrection was testified to by both friend and foe.
The Conversion of James
James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem in the first decade or so after his brother’s death. With James, as with Paul, we have a report of a resurrection appearance leading to the conversion of someone who was not a follower of Jesus during his earthly life.
The Gospels report that Jesus had a brother named James, and James is referenced by the Jewish historian Josephus in his account of James’ martyrdom. James was reportedly a pious Jew, maintaining Jewish customs and the respect of the Jewish community even after his conversion, and he became known as James the Just in Christian tradition.
We have the following evidence that James converted to Christianity on the basis of a personal appearance from Jesus:
- The Gospels hint that Jesus’ brothers did not follow him or believe in his claims during his earthly ministry. (Matthew 13:55-57, Mark 3:21, 3:31-35, 6:3-4, John 7:3-5)
- This makes sense: as a pious Jew, James very probably would have resented his older brother’s audacious claims of being the Son of God.
- But Acts reports that Jesus’ brothers were with the disciples at Pentecost. (Acts 1:14)
- Early Christian tradition reported by Paul held that Jesus appeared to James following his resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)
- James is identified as a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. (Acts 15:12-21, Galatians 1:19)
- That James’ belief in the resurrection was genuine is demonstrated by the fact that he became a martyr because of them. His martyrdom is attested by Josephus and in Christian tradition (reported by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius).
These references show that there are multiple early sources for James’ conversion, and given the report of the appearance to James (passed down by Paul) we can be reasonably certain that such an experience was the cause for his conversion.
Given all the above, we have good historical evidence that following Jesus’ death, a number of people, (including Jesus’ closest disciples as well as Paul and James) had experiences which they took to be appearances of Jesus raised from the dead – and that these experiences were powerful enough to convince them that the resurrection had indeed occurred.
In my next post, I will explore the evidence for one further historical fact that provides important context for the events surrounding Jesus’ death and post-mortem appearances. Then I will begin to look into how these facts might be explained.